Biden's nominee to lead national firearm regulator faces Senate committee

·3 min read

Washington – Less than 24 hours after a gunman killed at least 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, the man nominated to lead the nation's lead firearm regulation agency faced high stakes and even higher emotions on Capitol Hill.

Steven Dettelbach, a former federal prosecutor and U.S. Attorney from Ohio, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee he would keep politics out of any law enforcement decisions should he receive full Senate confirmation as Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, and Tobacco. President Joe Biden announced his nomination earlier this year, and if confirmed, Dettelbach will be the first official director of the agency in seven years.

Dettelbach told the panel he vowed to "partner" with other law enforcement and government officials to achieve public safety "with an open heart, with open ears, and always with an open mind."

Much of Dettelbach's confirmation hearing was dominated by Tuesday's shooting at Robb Elementary as senators from both sides of the aisle pointed out that the position for which he has been nominated has been vacant for so long.

 Former U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearing to be the next director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on May 25, 2022 in Washington, DC.  / Credit: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
Former U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearing to be the next director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on May 25, 2022 in Washington, DC. / Credit: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

"We are sacrificing our children on the altar of inaction," Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey declared. Many of his Democratic colleagues seemed to agree, urgently calling for stricter gun laws like universal background checks and red flag laws that would allow regulated intervention from friends and family concerned with an individual's gun ownership.

"We're cowards if we don't act. Cowards," Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy said, while others criticized the National Riffle Association for opposing generally popular gun reform measurs.

Republicans on the committee joined their colleagues' condolences, but also scrutinized Dettelbach's record as a former U.S. attorney and a one-time political candidate.

Missouri's Senator Josh Hawley asked the nominee why the number of explosive and firearm investigations launched during his time as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio appeared to drop by 50%. Dettelbach responded that during his tenure, rates in firearm investigations both increased and decreased in different years.

Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas pressed Dettelbach on a campaign pledge during his 2018 candidacy for Ohio's Attorney General to ban assault-style weapons, asking Dettelbach to explicitly define the term. Dettelbach said he was not going to that, explaining it was only for a legislative body like Congress to determine what an assault weapon actually is.

Dettelbach's nomination comes after a tumultuous year for the ATF, a component of the Justice Department that is charged with investigating and preventing gun crimes. Last month, acting Director Marvin Richardson left his post. He was the temporary head of the agency after Mr.  Biden in September withdrew his first pick to head the ATF, David Chipman, – citing Republican opposition. 

Dettelbach  has received broad support from law enforcement, with groups like the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Major County Sheriffs of America pushing for his confirmation.

On Tuesday night, a large group of interfaith leaders sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee supporting Dettelbach to take the top position. According to a copy of the letter obtained by CBS News, the faith leaders wrote, "We are a diverse group of clergy and lay leaders from different

religions and regions. Our political views are also diverse. Yet we face common threats

from increasing firearms violence and an alarming level of anti-religious violence."

Earlier this month, the ATF released a comprehensive report on firearms commerce and trafficking at the direction of Attorney General Merrick Garland. The report found that licensed domestic firearm and weapon manufacturing increased by 187% between 2000 and 2020.

According to the report, the number of suspected personally made firearms or so-called "ghost guns" recovered by law enforcement and subsequently traced by ATF increased 1,000% in just the five years between 2016 and 2021.

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