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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Biden names former federal prosecutor to lead ATF

President Joe Biden points to pieces of a ghost gun as he speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Monday, April 11, 2022, to announce new action by the Biden Administration to fight gun crime.

By Glenn Thrush and Katie Benner

President Joe Biden nominated a former federal prosecutor, Steven Dettelbach, earlier this week to run the embattled Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — part of a renewed effort to combat gun violence and jump-start a stalled gun control agenda.

Biden, facing pressure from gun safety groups to take bolder action, also announced completion of a rule to ban the unregulated online sale of “ghost guns,” untraceable firearm components without serial numbers that are often sold in ready-to-assemble kits.

Yet the president was visibly frustrated as he spoke in the Rose Garden during an appearance with victims of shootings and their families. He acknowledged that his core agenda — renewing the ban on assault weapons and instituting universal background checks on gun buyers — has been blocked by Congress, forcing him to take more modest actions.

“We are pushing in each of these areas, but none of this absolves Congress,” Biden said, just over a year after standing in the same spot to declare the epidemic of firearms violence “an international embarrassment” after mass shootings in Georgia and Colorado.

At the 2021 event, Biden introduced his first pick to run ATF, David Chipman, a fiery former federal agent who vowed to take on the gun industry and upend the agency’s operations. Chipman’s uncompromising views eventually cost him support from a key Senate moderate, sinking his nomination last fall.

White House officials, who privately acknowledged they had mishandled Chipman’s nomination, were intent on laying the groundwork for a more successful process this time around. They marshaled support from law enforcement officials, including Rod Rosenstein, the former deputy attorney general, in the days leading up to his nomination. The new nominee also has been vetted by Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who caucuses with Democrats and opposed Chipman, according to a senior White House official involved in the process.

Biden pointed to Dettelbach’s record of taking “violent criminals off the street,” and cast him more as a respectful reformer than a disruptive force. Dettelbach, 56, a polished career prosecutor, echoed that message, saying he was an admirer of ATF who had worked closely with bureau field agents as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio under President Barack Obama.

“I want to thank the men and women of the ATF,” he said. He added, “Sadly, one thing I have also seen over the years is that the ATF often does work in anonymity when its agents are out there risking their lives to protect us, only to be thrust into the public eye when it’s time for criticism.”

John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown for Gun Safety, a leading gun control group, thanked the White House for “doubling down” on its commitment to eradicating ghost guns and praised Dettelbach as a “strong leader.”

If confirmed, Dettelbach would become only the second permanent director in the past 15 years of the ATF, an undersized and underfunded agency hamstrung by the gun lobby and congressional Republicans.

During an unsuccessful bid for Ohio attorney general in 2018, Dettelbach, a Harvard graduate who began his career in the Justice Department’s civil rights division under President Bill Clinton, supported an assault weapons ban, universal background checks and tighter restrictions on gun buyers with mental health issues.

Republicans, already poring over videos and news accounts of Dettelbach’s campaign, are likely to attack him for welcoming the endorsement of Everytown.

The National Rifle Association and other pro-gun groups are likely to oppose any nominee who wants to strengthen enforcement and oversight. In 2020, President Donald Trump’s pick for the bureau, Chuck Canterbury, a conservative police union official, was forced to withdraw after several Republican senators publicly questioned his commitment to the Second Amendment.

Larry Keane, a top official with the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearms industry trade group that led the charge against Chipman, said he was disappointed that Biden had not chosen to permanently appoint Marvin Richardson, the agency’s acting chief.

“The current acting director is a well-qualified African American man,” Keane wrote in a text message on Sunday. “We will examine Mr. Dettelbach’s record and qualifications and listen carefully to his confirmation hearing testimony. From what we have seen of his record thus far we have concerns.”

But Dettelbach enjoys one advantage over Chipman — a powerful ally in the upper chamber. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, is close to Dettelbach, and has assured administration officials he would push hard for his confirmation.

“Steve Dettelbach is an experienced public servant who served Ohio as U.S. attorney with honor and integrity,” Brown said in a statement Sunday. “He has demonstrated a strong commitment to justice, inclusive leadership, and to strengthening relationships between law enforcement and the community. He would serve our nation well as ATF director.”

The long-awaited ghost gun rule is one of the most significant executive actions undertaken by the administration, intended to block the legal sale of weapons that are seen as a growing menace by local law enforcement departments.

The ATF completed the rule after months of sifting through a quarter-million public comments — about two months earlier than Richardson had predicted in January. Such rules are typically enacted 60 to 90 days after completion.

Ghost guns are increasingly becoming the lethal weapon of choice for those legally barred from buying or owning guns around the country, especially in coastal blue states with strict firearm laws. In California, ghost guns accounted for 25% to 50% of firearms recovered at crime scenes over the past 18 months.

Biden was introduced by Mia Tretta, who was shot in the stomach in November 2019 when a classmate opened fire at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, California, with a ghost gun. Two of her friends were killed.

Ghost guns, she said, “look like a gun, shoot like a gun and kill like a gun, but have not been regulated like a gun.”

The Justice Department’s new rule, which is likely to be challenged in court, changes the definition of a firearm by requiring that major parts needed to assemble a working gun are inscribed with serial numbers and subjected to the same background check requirements as conventional firearms.

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