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Senate committee meets with Biden's pick to lead ATF hours after Texas shooting

Steven Dettelbach, President Joe Biden's pick to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearing, the morning after the killing of at least 19 children by a teenage gunman at a Texas elementary school.
J. Scott Applewhite
/
AP
Steven Dettelbach, President Joe Biden's pick to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearing, the morning after the killing of at least 19 children by a teenage gunman at a Texas elementary school.

Hours after a gunman killed 19 children and two adults in an elementary school shooting in Texas, the White House nominee to head the country's firearms bureau appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee and held out one of the few possibilities for Democratic lawmakers to take action on gun safety this year.

Longtime prosecutor Steven Dettelbach, who served as the U.S. attorney in Cleveland for nearly seven years during the Obama administration, vowed to follow the directives of Congress when it comes to new gun control policy if he is confirmed to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

"It is a core value of mine that politics can play no role in law enforcement, none at all," Dettelbach told the committee on Wednesday.

The agency has lacked a permanent director for seven years. President Biden's first nominee for the post withdrew after fierce criticism from gun industry groups and some lawmakers. Former President Donald Trump's nominee for the post, a leader of the nation's most powerful police union, also failed to win Senate confirmation.

"The gun groups want it to go vacant; they don't want the agency doing its job," asserted Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill.

Still, the White House said this time could be different: major police and sheriff organizations are backing Dettelbach, as are eight former ATF directors and 141 onetime Justice Department officials from both political parties.

Last month, the largest group of pediatric surgeons in the country endorsed Dettelbach as a leader with a record of being effective. Gun-related injuries are now the leading cause of death for American children and teenagers.

Dettelbach answered questions from lawmakers with caution, saying he didn't come to the job with a specific policy agenda. He said he supported strong partnerships with state and local law enforcement agencies and backed the idea of working together on task forces to trace guns used in crimes and build bigger cases against criminal gangs.

"ATF is a boots-on-the-ground law enforcement partner and that's the philosophy I would bring to the ATF," he said.

The fate of additional gun safety legislation in the Senate seems uncertain and Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said "the least we could do is deliver a Senate-confirmed leader to the ATF."

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., questions Steven Dettelbach, President Joe Biden's pick to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, during a confirmation hearing the morning after the killing of at least 19 children by a teenage gunman at a Texas elementary school.
J. Scott Applewhite / AP
/
AP
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., questions Dettelbach during a confirmation hearing Wednesday.

Republicans on the committee pressed Dettelbach about why the number of gun prosecutions during his tenure as U.S. attorney in the Northern District of Ohio plunged by nearly half during his term.

"What accounts for that?" asked Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo.

The nominee said he wasn't sure why such cases had dipped in that period of time but said that prosecuting weapons violations was an office priority and that he never changed the policy.

Republican lawmakers also asked about Dettelbach saying he supported banning assault weapons during an unsuccessful 2018 campaign to serve as attorney general in Ohio. He said "it would only be for a legislative body to do that work."

If Democrats in the Senate stick together, Dettelbach could have a narrow path to confirmation. He got a boost Wednesday when Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with Democrats, told CNN he leaned toward voting for Dettelbach.

"This guy is the right guy," King said.

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