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Biden eyes new steps on gun violence, including an ATF director

The Senate has only once confirmed an ATF director. The White House hopes to change that with a new nominee.


It was just a few days ago when Politico reported on a growing number of Democratic policymakers eager to see President Joe Biden take action to address gun violence. “It’s time for more urgency from the administration as the gun violence epidemic gets worse by the day,” Sen. Chris Murphy said.

The White House appears to have gotten the message. NBC News reported that the president is expected to introduce new policy measures today, including action intended to address untraceable “ghost guns” that can be 3D-printed at home.

The report added, “Biden’s announcement will most likely rely on executive orders on gun control, ghost guns and other facets of firearms regulation as part of an approach to rein in the pandemic wave of firearms-related attacks, two people with knowledge of his remarks said.”

But as part of the same rollout, the president will also reportedly announce an important new nominee. The New York Times reported this morning:

President Biden is expected on Monday to nominate a former federal prosecutor from Ohio to run the embattled Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, administration officials said, part of a series of measures meant to demonstrate the White House’s modest progress on gun control.... Mr. Biden is set to announce that he will tap Steven M. Dettelbach, who served under President Barack Obama as the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, at a Rose Garden event Monday afternoon.

If you’re thinking that Biden already tried to get an ATF director through the Senate, it’s not your imagination. Circling back to our earlier coverage, it was almost exactly a year ago when the president nominated David Chipman to lead the agency, and at the time, reform advocates were cautiously optimistic about his chances.

After all, Chipman served as an ATF special agent for 25 years; he’s a respected policy expert; and he’s a veteran of the Justice Department. Chipman also recently worked as a senior policy adviser at Giffords — an organization founded by former Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords of Arizona and committed to reforming the nation’s gun laws. He seemed like a fairly obvious choice who could gain approval in the Senate.

Republicans, however, didn’t quite see it that way. In June 2021, Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine announced her opposition to Chipman, describing him as “divisive.” A few weeks later, Republican Rep. Andy Biggs, the chair of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, said in reference to the ATF nominee, “The first thing you’ve got to do is stop the guy that’s going to enforce the laws — and that’s Mr. Chipman.”

In theory, the Democratic majority didn’t need any Republican votes to confirm the ATF nominee, but a handful of members from the Senate Democratic conference — including West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, Montana’s Jon Tester, and Maine’s Angus King — grew skittish in the wake of the right’s pushback.

And so, Chipman’s nomination collapsed. What’s more, he’s had quite a bit of company: Since the ATF director position became a Senate-confirmed job 16 years ago, the Senate has confirmed a grand total of one person to the post. (B. Todd Jones, a former federal prosecutor tapped for the job by Barack Obama, remains the only Senate-confirmed ATF director — and he just barely passed Senate muster in 2015.)

Senate Republicans didn’t even confirm Donald Trump’s nominee to lead ATF — and GOP senators generally saw themselves as little more than rubber stamps for whatever Trump wanted.

The trouble, of course, is that Republicans feared Trump’s nominee might enforce the nation’s gun laws, and the party wasn’t prepared to let that happen. Indeed, practically every GOP senator for a decade and a half has opposed every nominee to lead the agency.

With this in mind, is there any reason to think Biden’s new choice will succeed where others have failed? Maybe. From the Times’ report:

Mr. Dettelbach, who served from 2009 to 2016 as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, which includes Cleveland, Toledo and Akron, seems to be a less polarizing figure. He is known for criminal prosecutions, hate crime cases and voting rights investigations.... Mr. Dettelbach, who needs the support of all 50 Senate Democrats, enjoys one advantage over Mr. Chipman — a powerful ally in the upper chamber. Senator Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, is close to Mr. Dettelbach, and has assured administration officials he would push hard for his nomination.

It won’t be easy — in all likelihood, Dettelbach will need the support of literally every member of the Senate Democratic conference — but the relevant players have been working on this for quite a while, and they seem to believe there’s a chance. Watch this space.

Update: It's notable that Dettelbach has already picked up some valuable endorsements, including federal prosecutors from Republican administrations. Former Trump deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein is among those offering public support for Biden's nominee.