Will gun control become a top election issue?
It didn’t seem likely for a while. The high visibility of pressing concerns like 40-year high inflation rates, a burgeoning humanitarian crisis in the ongoing war in Ukraine, and domestic culture warring over education policy have been at the top of most Americans’ minds.
But actions taken by President Joe Biden this week may very well have foisted the issue of guns back onto the radar of voters going into November’s midterm elections. Largely at the behest of a sustained pressure campaign from gun-control groups, President Biden announced his new nominee to head the ATF on Monday. He also announced the accelerated release of the final ATF rule banning “ghost gun” kits.
Either action taken on its own would be enough to raise the political stakes. Gun control by executive fiat is a policy route that draws the ire of gun owners and energizes gun-control advocates. But combining that announcement with the another attempt to successfully confirm a permanent ATF director takes the political stakes up a notch.
Getting a permanent ATF director confirmed is a tough battle in any political environment, as evidenced by the fact that only one director has been confirmed since 2006. The Trump administration was not even successful in confirming a nominee despite Republican control of the Senate at the time.
But the failure of David Chipman’s nomination to the ATF director role was perhaps the most high-profile political loss for Biden thus far in an administration that has seen its fair share of contentious confirmation battles. The fact that the Biden administration would return to that well after burning so much political capital in vain last time around suggests a commitment to making gun control a key selling point for his party.
Dettelbach may not have the same political baggage as his ill-fated predecessor. Chipman was a professional gun-control advocate employed by Giffords prior to his nomination. He also had a history of making controversial and derisive statements about the industry and gun owners he would be in charge of regulating at the ATF. Plus, serious concerns about his character while working as a federal agent were uncovered after his nomination.
Dettelbach supports many of the same gun restrictions Chipman did. He was endorsed by the gun-control groups during his failed 2018 AG campaign, but has never directly worked for them like Chipman did. He has used heated rhetoric to question the integrity of Ohio’s elections. But much of his background is still unexplored to this point.
The renewed push for a permanent ATF director is likely part of the White House’s attempt to dissuade voter concerns over rising crime. Dettelbach’s background as a prosecutor and the bipartisan support he has received thus far from other prosecutors and law enforcement officials provides some support for that idea.
However, Dettelbach is on record as supporting contentious gun-control policies like “assault weapons” bans and universal background check mandates. His backing of those policies will undoubtedly raise the salience of gun politics alongside crime concerns in his upcoming confirmation battle.
The president is taking a political risk by announcing another gun-control advocate to lead the agency charged with regulating the firearms industry while releasing controversial new gun regulations. It isn’t immediately clear this nominee will fare better than the last in terms of securing the support of moderates in the Senate, and another tense confirmation fight this close to election season could be a political liability for Democrats. At the same time, his final “ghost gun” kit ban has already mobilized Republican political opposition, and the forthcoming pistol brace ban–which will directly impact millions of Americans–will only add more fuel to that fire.
As election season draws nearer, it’s unclear how enthusiastic moderate Democrats from vulnerable states will be to vote for an ATF candidate with an established history of support for gun restrictions.
But it is clear that the President has set in motion the potential for gun politics to be a motivating issue for voters just months away from a midterm election poised to deliver serious Republican gains. How will voters react?