WASHINGTON — 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.
Dettelbach was confirmed by a 48-46 vote that split mostly along party lines; Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, voted with Democrats. The vote marks the first time the Senate has confirmed an ATF leader since 2013.
The 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.
When he was nominated by President Joe 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 shootings in Buffalo, N.Y., Uvalde, Texas, and Highland Park, Ill.
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.
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. A confirmed director, he said, can be “meaningful within the bureau” for morale.
Jones, now the NFL’s special counsel for conduct, served as the acting ATF director from 2011-13, 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 is a former federal prosecutor who served as U.S. attorney in Ohio from 2009-16 and has run in the past for attorney general of Ohio.
He worked in several other positions in the Justice Department and was involved in the prosecution of a man who firebombed an Ohio courthouse. He also served as the chairman of the civil rights subcommittee as part of the attorney general’s advisory committee under former attorneys general Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch.
After stepping down in 2016, Dettelbach returned to BakerHostetler, the law firm where he had been a partner before serving as U.S. attorney.
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.” After he was nominated, the National Sports Shooting Foundation, the firearms industry’s trade group, said 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.
The 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 recent spate of high-profile mass shootings sparked momentum on Capitol Hill to pass modest gun-control legislation despite NRA opposition.
Biden hailed Dettelbach’s confirmation and said Dettelbach “will play a leading role in ensuring robust implementation” of the widest-ranging gun violence bill Congress has passed in decades and other action to drive down violent crime.
“We have so much more to do,” Biden said in a statement. “I will continue to call on Congress to build on this momentum and ban assault weapons, expand background checks, and pass safe storage laws.”
Biden called Dettelbach an “extraordinarily qualified and decorated career prosecutor with strong support across the law enforcement community.”
Information for this article was contributed by Mark Berman of The Washington Post and by Michael Balsamo of The Associated Press.