The Senate just approved the second permanent director in the history of the Burea of Alcohol, Tabacco, Firearms, and Explosive (ATF).
On Tuesday, the Senate voted to confirm Steve Dettelbach to the position by a vote of 48 to 46. President Joe Biden’s nominee managed to garner a vote from every Democrat in attendance and those of Senators Susan Collins (R., Maine) and Rob Portman (R., Ohio). Dettelbach is the first director nominee to be confirmed in 16 years.
“Following the passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, today’s vote is another important sign that both parties can come together to support law enforcement and stand up against the horrific scourge of gun violence,” Biden said in a statement.
A series of acting directors have run the ATF since B. Todd Jones resigned to pursue a job with the NFL in March 2015. The agency has had three different acting directors in the last three years. As a permanent director, Dettelbach will have more leeway to make long-term strategic changes to how the agency works.
His confirmation also represents another win on guns for Biden. After he was forced to withdraw his first ATF nominee, David Chipman, over concerns about his gun-control advocacy and still-disputed accusations of racially-motivated misconduct during his time as an ATF agent, the President managed to find a replacement who could get majority support in the Senate. And the confirmation comes just a few weeks after Biden signed the first new federal gun restrictions in a generation into law.
Kris Brown, head of the gun-control group Brady, cheered the pair of accomplishments.
“These successive victories are not only a win for the gun violence prevention movement, but clear evidence that actions taken by activists over many years and the work to elect gun violence prevention majorities in both chambers of Congress and a proven champion in the White House have paid off,” she said in a statement. “In less than two years, we have seen transformative change on this issue, from unprecedented funding for community violence prevention programs, to attention to the supply of crime guns from the Department of Justice, to new federal laws to stop firearms from reaching individuals who should not have them.”
However, some gun-control advocates remain unsatisfied with Biden’s accomplishments since top priorities like an assault weapons ban and universal background checks remain out of reach.
The confirmation of Dettlebach wasn’t easy sailing, though. Biden has repeatedly touted his nominee’s past as a US Attorney for the District of Northern Ohio and endorsements from law-enforcement groups. But critics and the gun industry pointed to Dettelbach’s failed campaign for Ohio Attorney General as evidence he was too political for the job. During that campaign, he endorsed the policy of banning “assault weapons,” a position he stood behind at his confirmation hearing despite being unable to define the term, and repeatedly claimed Ohio’s elections were “rigged” in the lead-up to his own loss.
As with Chipman, race was also an issue in Dettelbach’s confirmation. Before being nominated to lead the ATF, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown (D.) teed up Dettelbach to retake his previous US Attorney position. However, after an outcry from Black activists about the process of his renomination, he was dropped. The National African American Gun Association slammed Dettelbach’s ATF nomination after news broke that former acting director Marvin Richardson, a Black career ATF official, was being forced out and not being considered for permanent director.
Dettelbach received less scrutiny than Chipman during his confirmation hearing, though, in large part because several Republican Senators who voted against his confirmation skipped the hearing to respond to the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, the day before. The horrific attack where a lone gunman murdered 19 children and two teachers as police waited outside energized efforts to pass a new federal gun law and install a permanent ATF director. President Biden specifically connected the new law and Dettelbach’s confirmation in his statement, saying the new ATF director will help enforce the new gun prohibitions and bring down the crime spike Americans have endured for the past several years.
[“A]s ATF Director, Steve will play a leading role in ensuring robust implementation of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act and driving forward other executive actions to fight crime and save lives,” Biden said.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade group for the gun industry, said it remains highly skeptical of Dettelbach’s priorities but is hoping to be able to work with him nonetheless.
“NSSF has enjoyed a cooperative relationship with the ATF for decades,” Mark Oliva, a spokesman for the group, told The Reload. “That’s proven through our partnership programs Don’t Lie for the Other Guy, to prevent illegal straw purchases, and Operation Secure Store, to deter and prevent robberies and burglaries of firearm retailers. While NSSF has considerable concerns of Mr. Dettelbach’s close relationship with gun control groups, his embrace of bans on entire classes of firearms, advocacy for universal background checks that are unworkable without a national firearm registry that’s banned by federal law, and the damaging ‘zero tolerance’ inspection policies being pushed by the Department of Justice, NSSF hopes Mr. Dettlebach appreciates and considers that the firearm industry is invested in real solutions to prevent the criminal misuse of firearms.”
Biden said he would continue to push for stricter gun laws despite chalking up two gun policy wins.
“We have so much more to do,” he said. “I will continue to call on Congress to build on this momentum and ban assault weapons, expand background checks, and pass safe storage laws.”
He said he would continue to take “historic executive action” on guns and expects Dettelbach to play a critical role in enforcing the orders he issues.