ATF Nominee Hearing Displays Partisan Divide on Guns

Less than 24 hours after a shooter killed 19 children and two teachers in a Texas elementary school, lawmakers grilled President Joe Biden’s pick to become the nation’s chief regulator of guns.

Frustrations over the intractable gun control debate in Congress spilled over into the pre-scheduled hearing for Steven Dettelbach, Biden’s nominee to be director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), as Senators pressed him with renewed urgency after the massacre in Uvalde, Texas.

“We need to act to prevent the next shooting,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois,The senator was asked to consider a House measure that expanded background checks on gun sales to include firearms sales. Sen. Chuck Grassley, the panel’s ranking member and a Republican from Iowa, instead pushed for separate legislation to enhance security in schools “to make sure dangerous individuals can’t do what happened yesterday.”

The stark contrast between Democrats and Republicans after yet another mass shooting—there have already been more than 200 this year—reflects the rigid partisan divide on guns that remains firmly in place even after the slaughter of innocent children. Texas’s tragedy was the most tragic school shooting in Connecticut since Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut 10 year ago. It occurred just 10 days after 10 victims were murdered by a racist gunman in Buffalo, New York. In the aftermath of all these tragic events, no significant legislation regarding gun control has been adopted.

Against this backdrop, Dettelbach avoided taking a stand on policy ideas to reform America’s gun laws, as GOP lawmakers questioned him about his support for an assault-weapons ban when he ran for Ohio attorney general in 2018. Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton asked Dettelbach to explain what constitutes an assault weapon. “When I was a candidate for office, I did talk about restrictions on assault weapons,” Dettelbach said. “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.”

Gun violence prevention movements would consider a Dettelbach confirmation a victory. Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, told TIME that he would enact a “comprehensive effort to go after violent white supremacists and rogue gun dealers alike.” But Dettelbach, a former U.S. attorney in Ohio, vowed to approach the job unencumbered by political pressure. “Politics can play no role in law enforcement,” he told the committee. “None at all.”

Dettelbach’s reluctance to weigh in on the politics of gun control may stem from the fact the ATF has been without a Senate-confirmed director since 2015. After B. Todd Jones stepped down that March, former president Barack Obama was unable to push a replacement through the Republican-controlled Senate. Donald Trump was his successor and he never bothered to name anyone as the head of the agency. Biden’s last nomination for the position, David Chipman (an ATF agent but a proponent of gun control) was forced to be withdrawn by fierce opposition from gun rights advocates, Republican lawmakers and some Democrats. With an evenly split Senate, Dettelbach will need the support of moderates from states with permissive gun laws who helped to scuttle Chipman’s nomination.

After seven years as acting directors, there are indications that Texas’ shooting might have prompted lawmakers to approve a permanent ATF chief. Senator Angus King from Maine, an independent who supports Chipman but caucuses alongside the Democrats, did not vote for Chipman. told CNN on Wednesday that he was “inclined to support” Dettelbach.

While Democrats on the Judiciary Committee used Dettelbach’s hearing to advocate for banning assault weapons and expanding background checks, the chances of passing new gun laws in the current Congress are all but impossible. Republican Senators have been adamant that recent shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde were not reason to strengthen America’s gun laws. “I think we have in our constitution our Second Amendment rights, and we shouldn’t take away rights for law-abiding citizens,” Sen. Rick Scott of Florida told reporters on Wednesday. Sen. Marco Rubio, also of Florida, added that bans on certain kinds of guns wouldn’t halt deranged people bent on mass murder. “At the end of day, you’re arguing about what they’re using to commit this, and the truth of matter is these people are going to commit these horrifying crimes, whether they have to use another weapon to do it, they’re going to figure out a way to do it,” he said.

Dettelbach, if confirmed would likely be restricted to following the existing laws to combat gun violence. That could include tracing the nation’s gun sales, prosecuting illegal firearm transactions, and regulating gun manufacturing and selling markets. ATF director has broad authority to make changes in regulations.

“I worked under Republican administrations and I worked under Democratic administrations as a federal prosecutor,” Dettelbach said. “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.”

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