A Senate confirmation hearing for the Biden administration’s nominee to lead the nation’s gun enforcement agency Wednesday exposed the country’s raw political divide on firearms policy following successive mass shootings that have left more than 30 dead..
A day after 19 children and two teachers were slaughtered at a Texas elementary school, Steven Dettelbach, a former federal prosecutor, appeared before a somber Senate Judiciary Committee weighing his candidacy to lead the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives, where he vowed to “never let politics influence my actions as ATF director.”
“Politics has absolutely no place in law enforcement,” Dettelbach said.
Yet politics has long shadowed an agency that has been without a Senate confirmed director for seven years – a measure of the potent influence of the nation’s gun rights groups who helped derail the Biden administration’s first selection for the post, an ardent gun control advocate.
Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., immediately seized on the agency’s long lack of permanent leadership, asserting that the powerful gun lobby has “wanted (the job) to go vacant” to weaken government’s oversight of the firearm industry.
“It is high time we do this – to confirm an ATF director,” Durbin said. “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.
“This committee will treat this nomination with the urgency it deserves,” the chairman said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., meanwhile, implored his colleagues to limit access to high powered weapons like those purchased by the Texas shooter and allegedly used by the attacker who killed 10 people less than two weeks ago at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket.
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The weapons, Leahy said, are those found in a “war zone, not a school zone.”
“We are cowards if we don’t act!” Leahy said. “Cowards!”
Committee Republicans, including Utah Sen. Mike Lee, called the reactions of Democrats and gun control advocates to the recent attacks as a new campaign to deny firearms to legitimate buyers and impose new restrictions on dealers.
Lee called on Dettelbach to renounce the endorsement of Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy group, which the senator claimed had sought to “profit” from the attack in Texas.
Dettelbach said he was unaware of such efforts by the group and reaffirmed his pledge to remain apolitical, if confirmed.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., raised the nominee’s support for an assault weapons ban as an unsuccessful candidate for Ohio attorney general in 2018.
As a nominee for the ATF post, the former federal prosecutor said he would leave such legislative policy efforts to state and federal lawmakers to decide.
The sharp questioning, however, was largely tempered by the pall cast by the violence in Texas and New York.
An emotional Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said “the shame” for the recent losses was the Senate’s to bear, in part, for failing to ensure that the ATF was equipped with permanent leadership.
“We are sacrificing our children on the altar of inaction,” Booker said.
As with all prior nominees to the post, Dettelbach faces stiff resistance from the powerful gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, which led the opposition to Biden’s first ATF nominee, David Chipman.
The NRA has also quickly moved to oppose Dettelbach, saying Biden had sought to “double-down on his attempt to put a gun control advocate in charge” of the agency.
“Like Chipman, Dettelbach is a dedicated gun controller with a background that proves he would be neither fair nor objective as head of ATF,” the group said immediately after Dettelbach was nominated last month.
The NRA’s opposition has been echoed by Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Judiciary Committee’s ranking Republican, who Wednesday promised close scrutiny of the nominee.
Grassley called Tuesday’s school attack “sickening and heartbreaking,” but expressed “grave concerns” for Dettlebach’s nomination.
“I’m concerned this administration is responding to demands to focus on the ATF’s regulatory responsibilities at the expense of its law enforcement duties,” Grassley said Wednesday.
Grassley also referred to a letter he addressed to Biden in which he criticized Dettelbach’s record, saying it demonstrated “a lack of awareness of the circumstances surrounding legal gun acquisition, or outright favoritism of expansive gun control.”
Apart from the increasing number of mass shootings, Dettlebach’s nomination comes at a time of surging violent crime and a growing threat posed by racially motivated attackers. The 18-year-old accused attacker in the Buffalo assault allegedly chose the supermarket because it was frequented by area Black residents.
Buffalo shooting:Buffalo attack highlights most lethal domestic threat: Racist, extremist violence Rising violent crime was among the issues cited by a string of law enforcement groups that also offered their support for Dettelbach, including eight former directors and acting leaders of the ATF.
“As communities nationwide are facing an increase in violent crimes and gun violence, strong leadership within the ATF is essential to coordinate and manage the range of issues that the agency is faced with,” said David LaBahn, president and chief executive officer of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, in a letter to the Judiciary Committee.