You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Biden Will Get His Man at ATF. But What Will Steve Dettelbach Do?

The famed and troubled Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives hasn’t had a head since 2015. It may now get one—but only because he’s taken so few stands in order to get confirmed.

Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
ATF nominee Steve Dettelbach

President Biden is on course to make a landmark breakthrough on gun control, but it isn’t through the gun-control bill Congress is working on. The Biden administration looks close to confirming a new director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives—the federal agency that has the authority to confiscate firearms and rein in gun trafficking. It would be the first time since 2015 that the agency has had an actual confirmed director. That would mean that during a serious national discussion on gun control, and with the Supreme Court expanding concealed-carry rights Thursday, the regulatory agency whose core mandate is about guns will finally have a director for the first time in years.

Steve Dettelbach, the former U.S. attorney whom the president tapped to run the ATF, has what any nominee needs these days to get through: a thumbs-up from Senator Joe Manchin and, in this case, Senator Angus King of Maine as well. Dettelbach’s nomination has already passed out of committee and is now waiting for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to schedule a floor vote.

For the Biden administration, this will have been a hard-fought victory. Dettelbach is actually not this administration’s first nominee. That was David Chipman, a former ATF agent who later went on to advise Giffords, the gun-control advocacy group co-founded and named after former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. The Biden administration withdrew Chipman’s nomination after it became clear that Republican and NRA pressure, as well as the lack of firm commitments from centrist Democratic senators over his nomination, meant he probably couldn’t muster the votes.

Chipman was outspoken throughout the process, at times to his detriment. He carried around a long trail of comments on how he would direct the ATF to double down on gun control and how the ATF had become too cozy with the gun industry, and he restated his support for stricter gun-control laws in general. Unsurprisingly, none of that helped him with the gun lobby. After his nomination was withdrawn, Chipman was self-critical about what he should have done to cement his nomination but also outspoken in his view that the White House effectively left him out to dry. (Chipman has also praised the Biden administration for its boldness: He described his nomination as a “gangster move,” in a good way.)

Publicly, nobody within the gun-control advocacy community I interviewed was willing to critique the administration’s approach. But privately, some in that world agree with Chipman. They also say that there wasn’t enough path-laying for Chipman’s candidacy. Democrats in the activist gun-control community and White House officials say this time around is different.

“I think there’s a sense that folks on all sides of this have to be more engaged; that’s number one. Number two, I think Dettelbach is far less of a lightning rod than David Chipman was,” said Igor Volsky, the director of the Guns Down America group. “Certainly you never saw the type of smear campaign that David endured.” 

A U.S attorney from Ohio from 2009 to 2016, Dettelbach narrowly lost the 2018 state attorney general race to current Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost. Dettelbach is a Dartmouth and Harvard Law graduate who, at six-foot-five, once played pickup basketball with former President Obama. His friends describe him as lacking in pretension.

That’s all fine, but two points are salient here. First, his legal background is not particularly focused on gun control. He worked in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, served as counsel to then–Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, and later volunteered on then-Representative Ted Strickland’s successful 2006 gubernatorial campaign. His litigation in private practice at BakerHostetler, a major law firm, concerned “large-scale, crisis-level litigations, many of which involved intense public and media scrutiny.” Friends describe him as humble and eager to surround himself with smart people. He likes to consider all sides of an issue before making a decision.

Dettelbach’s nomination has the backing of some of the moderates Chipman’s lacked. People in the gun-control advocacy community say the White House has been more involved in keeping track of this nomination. Former ATF directors have written glowingly about Dettelbach. Former Senator Doug Jones of Alabama penned an op-ed for Fox News arguing for Dettelbach’s confirmation. There’s nothing subtle about which constituency that write-up was for.  

Talking points obtained by The New Republic lay out what the White House sees as Dettelbach’s strengths: that he’s a “Highly Decorated and Respected Federal Prosecutor”; that he has a “proven track record of working with federal, state, and local law enforcement in fighting violent crime”; and that he has “decades fighting domestic terrorism, anti-religion and other hate crime and violent extremism.” Major gun-control groups like Everytown are also backing him.

Second, unlike Chipman, and to get himself confirmed, Dettelbach has been more mum on his specific views on gun control, which has played in his favor by not enraging the gun lobby too much. At his confirmation hearing, the former U.S. attorney held off from delving too deeply into his specific mass shooting remedies and gun-control preferences. “Violent crime is increasing. Firearms violence and mass shootings are increasing. Hate crimes and religious violence are increasing, as is violent extremism,” Dettelbach said at that hearing. “If confirmed, I promise to do everything I can to enforce the law, to respect the Constitution of the United States, and to partner with law enforcement to protect the safety and the rights of innocent and law-abiding Americans.” 

Anyone taking the ATF director job would do well to have thought and know a lot about the agency and gun control. The ATF was once the home base of Eliot Ness and the Untouchables, but in fact it has a spotty history marked by controversies. It is one of the smallest of its kind in law enforcement, with only 5,000 people. Its budget only went up by 6 percent over a 10-year period, even as mass shootings have been on the rise, as have gun sales. (Biden has proposed a 13 percent increase in funding over the fiscal year.) The last Senate-confirmed ATF director left in 2015, and a new one hasn’t come in since. There have only been acting directors, which makes a difference. Senate-confirmed directors can make changes to internal practices and procedures that acting directors can’t.  

Gun rights groups and pro-gun conservatives have been able to block even the prospect of confirming a director. It’s virtually impossible to confirm a director who has made clear they would aggressively fulfill the agency’s mandates. Even Donald Trump met obstruction on installing an ATF director because Republican senators were concerned that the nominee, Chuck Canterbury, would actively enforce restrictions on gun owners.

There’s an irony in the consistent conservative opposition to confirming an ATF director. Republicans love to say they would rather see law enforcement enforce the gun laws already on the books. That’s the actual job of the ATF, not to enact more gun laws or introduce new restrictions. It is a regulatory agency, not a legislative entity. Yet gun rights groups and conservatives have strongly fought any ATF nominee who might actually support gun-control measures that would curtail gun massacres.

Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, who introduced Dettelbach at his confirmation hearings, said in an interview the former U.S. attorney has made clear “he will bring stability to the office that hadn’t been there without a director” and would enforce the larger bipartisan gun deal that seems to be on its way to Biden’s desk right now. That would be a shift from the past few years, despite the ongoing mass shooting epidemic across the country.  

Dettelbach’s nomination has been largely eclipsed by the momentum of the bipartisan gun-control bill. On Thursday, the Senate moved the bill to final passage. The gun bill is getting more attention than Dettelbach’s nomination, which is to Dettelbach’s benefit. The more attention the ATF nominee gets, the more gun-rights groups and advocates will work to block him. 

If and when Dettelbach is confirmed, the agency will finally be run by someone with full authority (and bipartisan blessing) to do things like distribute the agency’s resources to its inspection officers or tracing tools for tracking guns found at crime scenes. With Biden’s proposed budgetary increase to the agency, a Director Dettelbach could use those funds to focus more on gun dealers who are breaking the law. Nothing of what Dettelbach or any ATF director could do concerns taking guns away from lawful owners, as the gun lobby likes to allege. It just involves stopping lawbreakers with guns, something that is sorely needed right now.