On guns, White House sees small but significant victory in likely ATF director confirmation

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It’s been nearly a decade since the Senate confirmed a director for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the federal agency tasked with enforcing the nation’s gun laws. But after Wednesday’s hearing for its nominee, federal prosecutor Steve Dettelbach, the White House increasingly believes that streak will be broken.

The hearing followed Tuesday’s massacre of 19 children and two adults at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. Authorities said the gunman bought his assault rifles legally, and the ATF would have had no jurisdiction over that transaction since its mandate covers only illegal activity.

Still, Democrats believe that confirming Dettelbach would serve as an important and symbolic step at a time when the nation is grieving over the shootings in Uvalde and, earlier this month, Buffalo, N.Y.

Two people kneel in front of a makeshift memorial containing flowers and balloons.
People at a makeshift memorial outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on Wednesday. (Nuri Vallbona/Reuters)

“Gun homicides surged nationwide during the pandemic. Yet the primary agency tasked with combating gun crime — ATF — has gone seven years without Senate-confirmed leadership. Steve Dettelbach is both a consensus builder and a mainstream pick to lead ATF,” a Democratic staffer on the Senate Judiciary Committee told Yahoo News, agreeing with the White House assessment that Wednesday’s hearing had been an auspicious development.

Speaking at another event on Wednesday, President Biden praised Dettelbach as “supremely qualified,” calling for the confirmation to proceed quickly. “Send the nomination to my desk,” he said. “It’s time for action.”

Biden’s first nominee, David Chipman, fell victim to the Senate’s sharply partisan politics on guns — and, perhaps, to his own record of activism for stricter measures. “Either this was impossible to win, or the strategy failed,” he told the New York Times after the nomination was pulled by the White House last year.

Though a Democrat, Dettelbach has not attracted the same ire. His nomination may also be tragically timely, with Wednesday’s hearing coming during an acutely violent period of mass shootings, violent crime and widespread anxiety about the nation’s social fabric.

“I think for me, and for many, last night was a night where parents everywhere hugged their kids just a little bit harder at the end of the day. I know I did,” he said in his opening remarks before the Senate Judiciary Committee. A Harvard-trained attorney, Dettelbach had once been on the committee’s staff.

Steve Dettelbach speaks at his confirmation hearing.
Steve Dettelbach testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearing on Wednesday. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Even as Dettelbach faced questions from Republicans worried about federal overreach, Democrats invoked the raw grief of Uvalde to marshal support for the nominee. “We’re cowards if we don’t act,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. “Cowards.”

Democrats would like to pass ambitious legislation instituting universal background checks and restoring the assault weapons ban. Simply confirming a presidential nominee would seem to be a modest task by comparison — though not one without its own attendant challenges. In 2020, then-President Donald Trump had to withdraw his nomination of Chuck Canterbury to head the ATF because some Republicans objected to his views on gun control.

The last ATF director to win Senate confirmation was Todd Jones, nominated by President Barack Obama in 2013. Jones is, in fact, the only ATF director to have ever been confirmed by the Senate, though that is partly because until 2006 the position could simply be filled by appointment.

The nomination of Chipman had been undone in good part by Sen. Angus King, the Maine independent who usually plays the part of a Democrat. On Thursday, King said he would not similarly block Dettelbach’s path.

“After reviewing Mr. Dettelbach’s responses to questions about his view of the ATF Director’s role and his track record in Ohio, I believe he is the right man for the job,” King said in a statement, thus handing the White House a potential victory on an issue — gun control — where Democratic victories have been rare in recent years.