Steve Dettelbach: Biden’s pick to lead ATF in spotlight at Senate hearing after Texas elementary school shooting

An 18-year-old gunman on Tuesday fatally shot 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school before he was killed by law enforcement officers, officials said. It is the deadliest shooting at a school since the Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut in 2012 that left 26 people dead, including 20 children aged between 6 and 7 years old.

The tragedy has shocked the nation and ratcheted up the pressure on Congress and the President to take action, though Democrats can do little to pass stricter gun control measures in a 50-50 Senate amid widespread Republican opposition.

In remarks before the committee, Dettelbach addressed the school shooting, calling the pain the families and the community now feel “unimaginable.”

“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,” he said.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, described the tragedy as “devastating” and “unconscionable.”

Durbin will work with his Democratic colleagues to schedule hearings on gun violence in America when lawmakers return from their Memorial Day recess, he said.

Durbin said Democrats are committed to action, but he conceded that it would be an uphill lift to get Republican votes.

“The President was right — it’s time for us to stand up and fight back as a nation,” Durbin said. “We are loath to call ourselves leaders in this country if we don’t address it.”

Dettelbach could be confirmed in the Senate without any GOP votes if all Democrats vote in favor and Vice President Kama Harris breaks a tie.

Durbin called Dettelbach “well-qualified” and emphasized the importance of the nomination.

“This is an agency which has the technical capacity to help us to solve gun crimes and to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them,” he said.

But Democratic unity is not guaranteed on the contentious issue of gun policy. And the White House has already suffered an embarrassing setback over its efforts to confirm a nominee to head the bureau last fall.

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In September 2021, the White House withdrew the nomination of David Chipman to lead the bureau. Biden put the blame on Republicans for the inability to get Chipman confirmed, even though there had been stiff resistance among moderate Democrats and independent Maine Sen. Angus King — as well as GOP senators — over Chipman’s past record on gun control.

The incident laid bare the reality of confirming someone to a post that has made past comments on such a sensitive and divisive issue as gun control, something that is sure to once again be front and center in Dettelbach’s hearing. Dettelbach made clear he supported universal background checks and a ban on assault-style weapons during his bid to be attorney general of Ohio in 2018. Those positions are expected to face scrutiny Wednesday.

Dettelbach is a former federal prosecutor and was previously unanimously confirmed by the Senate to serve as the US attorney for the Northern District of Ohio under President Barack Obama.

The ATF has operated under a series of acting directors since its last Senate-confirmed leader stepped down in 2015, and the Senate last confirmed an ATF nominee in 2013.

Nominee vows ‘politics can play no role in law enforcement’

During the hearing, Dettelbach discussed his work as a prosecutor and argued that he is dedicated to upholding the law without political interference.

“Politics can play no role in law enforcement. None at all,” he said in response to a question from Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal about how he would draw on his prosecutorial background to be effective in the new role.

“I worked under Republican administrations and I worked under Democratic administrations as a federal prosecutor and I have lived that credo and I vow to continue to do it because people need to have confidence that people in law enforcement’s only agenda is to enforce the law. and if you’re at the ATF to catch the bad guys and protect the public,” he said.

“I vow to never let politics in any way influence my action as ATF director,” he added.

Democratic senators referenced the Texas elementary school shooting as well as a recent mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, to argue the necessity of quickly confirming a new ATF director.

“We cannot afford to keep saying some day in the future somehow we will take action, I think the least we could do is deliver a Senate-confirmed leader for the ATF,” Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware said.

Nominee grilled by Republicans over position on assault weapons

Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas pressed the nominee to define the term assault weapon after noting that during Dettelbach’s 2018 campaign for Ohio attorney general he supported a ban.

“What is an assault weapon — can you define it for me?” Cotton asked.

“When I was a candidate for office I did talk about restrictions on assault weapons. I 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,” the nominee said.

“I acknowledge that’s a very difficult issue. That is for this body to decide,” he later added.

“I think it’s very telling that you’re nominated to lead the ATF and and you don’t have a definition of assault weapon,” Cotton said. “The point is there is really no such thing as a category of weapons known as assault weapons. There are rifles, there are shotguns, there are pistols, they have properties, they have features, but there is no such thing as a category of assault weapon.”

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