Steve Dettelbach speaks during an event about gun violence in the Rose Garden of the White House on April 11.

Steve Dettelbach speaks during an event about gun violence in the Rose Garden of the White House on April 11. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Biden’s ATF Nominee: ‘Politics Can Play No Role in Law Enforcement’ 

Steve Dettelbach testified before a Senate committee a day after a mass shooting at an elementary school in Texas. 

As the country reels from yet another mass shooting, the president’s nominee to lead the federal firearms oversight agency testified on Wednesday that there is no place for politics in law enforcement and that he won’t come to the role with a specific agenda. 

In April, President Biden nominated Steve Dettelbach, who served as a U.S. attorney as well as in senior Justice Department roles over his 30-plus year career, to be director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, an agency that deals with politically charged issues. Democrats and activists have said the agency has been underfunded and understaffed over the years, blaming Republicans and the gun lobby. ATF has lacked a Senate confirmed leader since 2015.

“From the agents, of course, who respond to horrific crime scenes and they risk their lives standing shoulder to shoulder with state and local cops on the street to the analysts and staff who anonymously pore over evidence and data late into the night to try to make a case to the bomb technician responding to a horrible incident ... to the lab person who’s working against time trying to make a ballistic match and more, I want those people and the others at the ATF to know that I honor that service,” Dettelbach testified Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, a day after a gunman killed at least 19 kids and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas

Dettelbach said a “core value” of his is that “politics can play no role in law enforcement, none at all” and noted that he’s worked under both Democratic and Republican presidential administrations. 

“I don’t come to this position with a specific policy agenda,” he said in response to a question about straw purchases, which is when a gun is bought on behalf of someone else. “But I do know that [for] people who straw purchase, it is a serious matter under current law and whatever tools I’m given I’ll do my best to use them impartially, but effectively to enforce the law.” 

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., expressed dismay that the ATF lacks a modernized system to search electronically for millions of gun sale records, noting he’s brought forth legislation to change this. 

Dettelbach said he was “generally familiar” with this, but would use whatever tools he’s given from Congress to assist state and local law enforcement agencies and always stay within the confines of the law. 

When asked if he supports the Biden administration’s “zero tolerance policy” to deal with “rogue gun dealers that willfully violate the law,” as the White House said, Dettelbach noted that he wasn’t at ATF when this was developed and hasn’t spoken with everyone involved yet, but based on his experience in private practice he believes regulations should be fair, consistent and effective, which he acknowledged is not always easy. 

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said, “It is high time for the Senate to confirm an ATF director—not to take guns away from responsible, stable, qualified, law-abiding Americans, but to help stop straw purchases, combat gun trafficking, and ensure that families can send their kids to school safely and law enforcement officers can return home each day to their loving families.” 

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said he hopes if Dettelbach is confirmed he will “look Congress in the eye” and tell them his agency doesn’t have the resources, personnel and technology to enforce the law and carry out its mission, for which he blamed Republicans.  

In contrast, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, ranking member on the committee, said that the concerns he raised to Biden in April about Dettelbach remain. “A cursory review of his statements about gun ownership demonstrate a lack of awareness of the circumstances surrounding legal gun acquisition, or outright favoritism of expansive gun control,” Grassley wrote. 

Other Republicans during the hearing expressed their skepticism of how Dettelbach would lead the agency. 

Endorsements for Dettelbach have come from groups including The National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, Women in Federal Law Enforcement, former senior Justice Department officials who served under both parties and eight former ATF directors who served under both parties. 

Dettelbach’s fate in the Senate is unclear so far. Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., are looking at the nomination after they were skeptical of Biden’s previously failed ATF nominee (David Chipman), who “faced Republican opposition over his support for various gun control measures, including an assault weapons ban,” NBC News reported. “Dettelbach also expressed support for such a ban during his failed campaign for Ohio attorney general in 2018 and has backed universal background checks — issues that drew concerns from [Grassley].”

After the shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York on May 14, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre reiterated the White House’s call for a confirmed leader of the ATF.

Dettelbach is the president’s second nominee for the agency. 

Last April, Biden nominated David Chipman, who spent 25 years at ATF and has done gun safety advocacy work, but then withdrew the nomination in September 2021 when he couldn’t secure the needed votes.