The Senate on Tuesday confirmed Steve Dettelbach, a former top federal prosecutor, to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, boosting the agency as the country struggles with rising gun violence.
ATF, which is tasked with regulating the firearms industry, has long lacked resources and steady leadership, operating under a string of acting directors while multiple nominees failed to win confirmation. The bureau, which has more than 5,000 employees, has also been a punching bag for the firearms lobby and other opponents, stumbling into self-inflicted wounds including the botched Obama administration gun operation known as “Fast and Furious.”
When he was nominated by President Biden this year, Dettelbach, 56, pledged to tackle “an epidemic of firearms violence” in America. He will take command of the bureau, whose budget exceeds $1 billion, at a fraught moment, with recent shooting rampages in Buffalo, Uvalde, Tex. and Highland Park, Ill., horrifying a nation that has become painfully familiar with such mass carnage.
Deadly gun violence has also surged across the country. A spike in fatal shootings nationwide pushed the rate of gun deaths in 2020 and 2021 to the highest levels in a quarter-century. At the same time, gun purchases have soared, with a Washington Post analysis estimating that more than 43 million guns were bought during those two years.
B. Todd Jones, the last ATF director to win Senate approval since that became a requirement for the job in 2006, said Dettelbach’s “challenge will be to focus the limited resources” of the bureau on significant issues, such as firearms used in crimes and ghost guns.
Having a confirmed director in place can matter for how others perceive the bureau, Jones said, because people inherently give “some level of cachet” to an official who is presidentially named and Senate-approved. The “acting” label, he said, might imply to others that “you’re a placeholder, that you’ve really just sort of maintained steady state operations.” A confirmed director, he said, can be “meaningful within the bureau” for morale.
Jones, now the NFL’s special counsel for conduct, worked in both capacities, serving as the acting ATF director from 2011 until 2013, when then-President Barack Obama nominated him for the permanent job in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn. After getting confirmed, Jones continued in the position until 2015.
The bureau’s challenges do not come from the title of the person leading it, Jones said, but from its limited resources and intense opposition from supporters of gun rights. The NRA once published a full-page newspaper ad pillorying ATF as “a rogue agency,” and there have been calls over the years to abolish the bureau outright or merge its work with another agency.
Dettelbach issued a staunch defense of the bureau and its workforce when he was nominated, saying that “the men and women of the ATF and the public that they protect deserve better support from us.”
For Dettelbach, the ATF job is a homecoming of sorts. He previously worked as a federal prosecutor in the Justice Department, which is ATF’s parent agency. During most of the Obama administration, he served as the U.S. attorney in the Northern District of Ohio.
During that time, the office worked on a reform agreement with the Cleveland police and prosecuted cases against an Indiana man who tried to burn down a Toledo-area mosque and another man who threw explosives at a city hall and courthouse, a case Dettelbach tried himself.
After stepping down in 2016, Dettelbach returned to BakerHostetler, the law firm where he had been a partner before serving as U.S. attorney. Before his first stint with the firm, Dettelbach worked as a federal prosecutor in Maryland and Ohio. In 2018, Dettelbach ran for Ohio attorney general, losing to Republican Dave Yost.
Dettelbach is “very much a consensus-driven leader,” said Carole S. Rendon, a longtime friend, who is also a partner at BakerHostetler, worked as Dettelbach’s top deputy at the U.S. attorney’s office and, when he stepped down, succeeded him in leading it.
“He wanted to hear everybody’s opinion and truly valued people’s input, whether they agreed or disagreed with him,” she said.
After Dettelbach was confirmed, Biden issued a statement praising his “distinguished prosecutorial experience” and said “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.”
Dettelbach’s nomination received support from a range of groups including Giffords, the gun-control group led by former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords; the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which said he “understands the importance of federal and state law enforcement’s collaborative efforts to combat and prevent violent crimes”; and organizations representing police chiefs and federal law enforcement officials.
The National Rifle Association, in contrast, called Dettelbach “anti-gun,” while the National Sports Shooting Foundation, the firearms industry’s trade group, said after he was nominated that it had “significant concerns” about some of his previous statements, including those supporting universal background checks. A group of more than a dozen Republican state attorneys general wrote to senators urging them to reject his nomination, saying that “it appears he would likely continue or even accelerate ATF’s attempts to restrict Americans’ rights and erode constitutional restraints on federal power.”
One key challenge for any new ATF leader is getting up to speed on all of the regulatory processes the agency has to oversee, said Michael Bouchard, a former assistant director of the bureau.
ATF plays a pivotal role in helping local and state law enforcement officials, Bouchard said, bringing “specific types of expertise that aren’t matched by any other federal agency.” A confirmed director chosen by the president, Bouchard noted, will automatically have a prominent seat at the table.
“The ATF will get more resources if they have somebody who can talk to the White House,” Bouchard said. “It’s their person. They’re going to trust what this person is saying.”
Biden’s previous nominee, David Chipman, spent decades with ATF before going to the Giffords advocacy group.
The White House pulled his nomination last fall during opposition from Republicans and some Democrats in the Senate — and from the NRA, which said it spent millions to oppose Chipman and called him “a grave threat to the Second Amendment,” saying he spent a decade “working for gun control groups and lobbying on Capitol Hill to restrict Americans’ rights.”
The tragedies also appear to be spawning a new wave of grief-driven advocacy, echoing efforts that followed earlier shootings in Newtown and Parkland, Fla.
On Tuesday, survivors of the recent rampages in Highland Park and Uvalde were scheduled to visit Capitol Hill to push for more gun-safety measures. Among them was Emily Lieberman, a pediatrician who survived the Fourth of July parade attack, fleeing to safety inside a winery bathroom with her 5-year-old daughter and more than a dozen other people.
“There is no way to settle this issue until assault rifles are banned from civilians,” Lieberman said in an interview. “Gun control does not have to be a Republican or a Democratic or even a bipartisan issue. This is not political. This is the safety of our country.”