Mass shootings put focus on Democrats’ push to confirm Biden’s guns nominee

President Biden's nominee to lead the ATF, Steve Dettelbach, at his confirmation hearing.
Greg Nash
President Biden’s nominee to lead the ATF, Steve Dettelbach, at his confirmation hearing.

Back-to-back mass shootings in New York and Texas have cast a spotlight on a Senate battle to approve a leader for a key agency aimed at reducing gun violence.

Senate Democrats on Wednesday cited the violence in a Judiciary Committee hearing while pushing for the confirmation of Steve Dettelbach, President Biden’s nominee to head up the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

The Senate hasn’t confirmed a permanent leader of the agency since former President Obama held office, after past nominations by Biden and former President Trump were withdrawn due to political opposition and amid lobbying efforts by gun groups.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who chairs the Senate panel, implored his colleagues to treat Dettelbach’s nomination the “urgency it deserves” and reiterated calls for gun reform in opening remarks, after acknowledging the 19 children and two teachers slain in Uvalde, Texas on Tuesday.

The shooting came roughly a week after 10 people were killed in a grocery store in a racist shooting targeting a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo.

“We’ve already failed those victims and families. We need to act to prevent the next shooting. We need to identify the risks and threats and finally do something,” Durbin said.

Biden tapped Dettelbach, who previously served as federal attorney in Ohio and helps lead white collar investigations at the BakerHostetler law firm, to head up the ATF last month

The nomination came months after the White House withdrew a previous nomination for David Chipman, a former ATF agent, following opposition from Republicans and pushback from an independent senator. Gun rights groups had also fiercely advocated against his nomination, targeting his past work with gun control group Giffords, as well as his support for tough gun legislation.

During the Wednesday hearing, Democrats blamed the influence of pro-guns groups for the Senate’s failure to confirm an ATF director.

“I’m also aware of the fact that even Donald Trump couldn’t get his nominee to the ATF confirmed,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said during the hearing, while referring to Trump’s former ATF pick Chuck Canterbury. 

“Not because he didn’t have law enforcement support. He was the former head of the FOP (Fraternal Order of Police), our largest police union, or at least a leader there. But it was again the power of these lobbies that do not represent the majority of gun owners positions on issues revolving around guns,” Booker said.

The Trump administration withdrew Canterbury’s nomination in May 2020 after it faced resistance from GOP members on the Judiciary panel, including from current member Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who expressed concerns about his views on the Second Amendment.

In his line of questioning to Dettelbach on Wednesday afternoon, Lee knocked Democrats “calling for more gun control” in wake of the recent shootings, and accused them of wanting “to crack down on law abiding Americans and federal firearms licensees who want to follow the law instead of armed criminals.”

Lee also took aim at gun control groups that he claimed were profiting off of the Texas shooting with “fundraising” emails, and repeatedly asked Dettelbach if he would disavow the actions, to which the nominee responded “politics have absolutely no place in law enforcement.”

Republican senators also grilled Dettelbach on his time as a federal attorney for the Northern District of Ohio and his office’s handling of firearms and explosives prosecutions, as well as past remarks in support of gun control measures in a previous campaign run.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) specifically asked Dettelbach about his support for a ban on “so-called assault weapons,” which the senator said the nominee called for in a past run and asked him to define.

In response, Dettelbach said he “did talk about restrictions on assault weapons,” though he added he “did not define the term, and I haven’t gone through the process of defining that term.”

“That would only be for the Congress, if it chose to take that up to do, and, if you chose to take it up, I would be at the ATF and there is perhaps expertise or data we could give you so that you could make the appropriate decision to both protect the public and protect the Second Amendment,” he added.

Despite fetching the endorsement of a growing number of police groups and former ATF heads ahead of the hearing, Dettelbach’s nomination is far from secured in the upper chamber, where some key Democrats also have yet to weigh in on his confirmation.

If confirmed this year, Dettelbach would be the first ATF director to receive the Senate’s stamp of approval in nearly 10 years.

Tags Barack Obama Biden Cory Booker Dick Durbin Donald Trump Joe Biden Mike Lee Obama

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