Administration

The Hill Interview: On Sandy Hook’s anniversary, ATF director calls number of shootings in US ‘wholly un-American’

Steve Dettelbach, the director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), in marking the 10th anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy on Wednesday, called the amount of gun violence in the United States “un-American” and vowed to keep up the work of the Biden administration in preventing gun violence.

“It is wholly unlawful and it is wholly un-American for this level of firearm violence to be going on. So, what I say to … people out there who are railing against this, keep using your voices, we’re with you on this. We have to do better,” he said in an interview with The Hill at ATF headquarters.

He went to Newtown, Conn., three weeks ago to visit families impacted by the 2012 mass shooting that left 20 children and six teachers dead. He said he is inspired by the people he met to do the work on gun violence prevention he says he takes into ATF each day.

In 2022, there have been more than 620 mass shootings nationwide, causing Americans to question if the country learned anything since Sandy Hook or if shootings are a part of American life.

But Dettelbach, who was sworn in as director in July, pushed back on that notion.

“At ATF, we don’t accept that the level of firearms violence that we’re seeing is something that is part of our national story, something we just have to live with. I don’t accept that and neither should you,” he said.

Congress passed a bipartisan gun control bill — the most far-reaching to curb gun violence in decades — that President Biden signed into law in June. Biden has also issued various executive orders with the goal of preventing gun violence. 

Yet in the days before Thanksgiving last month, a spate of shootings hit the U.S. 

Dettelbach wants Americans to know that there are thousands of people in his agency working to prevent those. 

“There are five to 6,000 people at ATF who go to work every single day. These are people, some of whom are risking their lives to try and protect people from violent crime and gun crime,” he said.

He said gun violence prevention advocates, including survivors and victims of gun violence like he met on his trip to Connecticut, inspire him every day to do more.

“When you see the people who are victims and survivors of gun crime, as I’ve seen around the country, who are willing to stand up and use these tragedies as springboards for positive change, that should inspire each and every one of us to never accept what’s going on,” he said.

Biden has consistently called for an assault weapons ban, which is a cry echoed by gun violence prevention advocates. Biden was in the Senate in 1994 when Congress and former President Clinton last enacted an assault weapons ban, which expired 10 years later.

Another ban doesn’t have the votes in Congress, yet Biden has relentlessly called for one. Passing a ban would take 60 votes in the Senate to bypass the legislative filibuster and Democrats will increase their majority next Congress to only 51 seats, while Republicans will hold a narrow majority in the House.

At ATF, Dettelbach said they are focused on enforcing and implementing what Congress has been able to pass. 

He pointed to provisions that he thinks will make a real impact inside the bipartisan gun control legislation, like a new straw purchasing provision that makes it a crime if someone buys a gun for another person who legally can’t have one. He also noted that there’s a provision that expands protections for victims of domestic violence by firearms, which closes the so-called boyfriend loophole.

And a priority of Biden and his administration has been to crack down on “ghost” guns, which are made from kits at home and don’t have serial numbers. Dettelbach pointed to the July 4 shooting in Highland Park, Ill., when a gunman killed seven at a parade, to highlight the issue with ghost guns. Law enforcement was able to catch the shooter due to the serial number on his gun.

“Ghost guns — the bullets are real, they kill people like regular guns and now they’re being treated like firearms, which is what they are. And people should be running background checks before they transfer those products,” he said.

On what he has learned in the 10 years since Sandy Hook, Dettelbach says it’s that there are people who won’t give up pushing for more measures, like banning assault weapons, that build on measures like closing the boyfriend loophole and targeting ghost guns.

“When I was up in Newtown … these are people who, despite these horrible personal tragedies, have decided in their community that they’re going to raise their voices and try to continue to press. That should be inspirational to all of us,” he said.

“What I’ve learned is that there’s a tremendous amount of tragedy and a tremendous amount of strength out there, and that is what I think should inspire all the rest of us to keep pushing on this,” he added.

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