President Joe Biden (D.) will try his luck at getting a permanent ATF director appointed once more.
He announced former prosecutor and Ohio Attorney General candidate Steve Dettelbach as his new nominee to become the permanent director of the ATF on Monday. Dettelbach will be thrown into the fire of the confirmation process, which his predecessor David Chipman did not survive, just months before the midterm elections. Biden said the move was necessary to combat the rise in murders throughout the country and enact his administration’s attempt to tighten gun regulations.
“Steve is immensely qualified,” Biden said. “Steve’s record makes him ready on day one to lead this agency.”
The move is likely to elevate the issue of guns to a higher priority during the upcoming election. Dettelbach’s confirmation hearing could come as soon as May with a vote shortly after if he receives bipartisan support. However, Dettelbach’s recent history as a political candidate and public support for new gun-control measures mean he is likely to face staunch opposition similar to what caused Chipman’s nomination to drag out for months before being withdrawn.
As they did with Chipman’s nomination, moderate Senate Democrats will decide Dettelbach’s fate. The Biden Administration will need to convince Senators Angus King (I., Maine), Jon Tester (D., Mont.), Kyrsten Sinema (D., Ariz.), and Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) to vote in favor of the new nominee. None of those four committed to voting for Chipman the last time around.
Dettelbach spent several decades as a prosecutor. He was unanimously confirmed to be a United States Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio in 2009. However, his career took a political turn after leaving the office in 2016. Two years later, he ran for Ohio Attorney General as a Democrat.
Dettelbach established his support for gun-control proposals from universal background checks to an “assault weapons” ban during the race while speaking with a local NPR affiliate. Dettelbach lost to Republican Dave Yost by about four points.
In 2021, Dettelbach attempted to get his old job back but failed in part due to opposition from civil-rights leaders. Samaria Rice, whose son Tamir was killed by Cleveland Police in 2014 when they mistook his toy gun for a real one, complained to Senator Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) after he told her he’d recommended Dettelbach to President Biden. “The community deserves a fair process,” not a “white, political insider” pick, she told Cleveland.com at the time. Dettelbach was not nominated for a second stint after that.
His run as a Democrat and public support for new gun restrictions will likely complicate his path to confirmation. Gun-rights groups and the firearms industry alike are already criticizing Biden’s pick of Dettelbach as a non-starter. The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), an industry trade group, said it wants a permanent director. However, it said it can only support a director who “will not politicize the ATF to advance a partisan gun control agenda.”
“NSSF is committed to a thorough examination of Dettelbach’s record and qualifications and will listen carefully to his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. NSSF has significant concerns regarding Dettelbach’s previous public statements supporting bans on Modern Sporting Rifles (MSRs), or AR-15 semiautomatic rifles, universal background checks, which are unworkable without a national firearm registry that is already forbidden by federal law, and extreme-risk protection orders, or so-called ‘red flag’ laws, without protections for Due Process considerations. Dettelbach was also previously endorsed by the gun control group, Everytown for Gun Safety, for his support for policies restricting Second Amendment rights.”
The NRA, which gave Dettelbach an “F” rating during his 2018 campaign, was more blunt.
“With Dettelbach’s nomination, President Biden has chosen to double-down on his attempt to put a gun control advocate in charge of the agency responsible for regulating America’s firearms industry,” the gun-rights group said in a release. “Like Chipman, Dettelbach is a dedicated gun controller with a background that proves he would be neither fair nor objective as head of ATF.”
On the other hand, the pick enthused gun-control groups. The top groups in the country had applied a great deal of pressure, often in public, on the Biden Administration in the wake of Chipman’s failed nomination. Dettelbach’s pick satisfies one of the key demands advocates had of Biden.
“Our army of grassroots volunteers has fought for years to crack down on ghost guns and elect gun sense champions — and today we’re seeing the results,” Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, said in a press release. “With gun violence killing 110 people every day and wounding hundreds more, the Senate must quickly confirm Steve Dettelbach.”
Dettelbach promised to support ATF agents and staff during his speech at Monday’s announcement. He said he would prioritize the agency’s fight against gun violence by going after gang members and individual criminals alike.
“As we emerge from this pandemic, we’ve got to recognize many Americans still face fear and isolation not because of a virus but because of an epidemic of firearms violence,” he said. “It’s not a new problem, and it has many causes. That’s why it’s going to take an all-hands-on-deck partnership approach to address that issue. And the ATF will be there.”
Dettelbach’s nomination will now go to the Senate, where he will need at least 50 votes to get the job. Only one permanent director of the ATF has been confirmed since the position required a Senate vote back in 2006. The agency has been operating with a series of short-term acting directors for over a decade.