President Joe Biden announced another nominee to lead the ATF Monday, April 11: former US attorney Steve Dettelbach. Will the president’s latest pick become the top cop for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives – or will Obama’s single successful pick from 2013, Todd Jones, remain the only agency director since the position began requiring Senate confirmation in 2006? If Dettelbach is the White House’s idea of a “non-controversial candidate,” however, the ATF seems doomed to remain leaderless.
A Qualified Man?
Steve Dettelbach and Barack Obama both graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1991, but while Obama eventually traded in the title lawyer for legislator, Dettelbach kept practicing. By 2009, Obama had become the president and his old classmate was a partner at BakerHostetler in Cleveland and a member of the Ohio Ethics Commission. Dettelbach, in the words of Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), “demonstrated professional achievements and an outstanding commitment to the northern Ohio community.” With Obama’s support in the White House and Brown lauding him from the Senate, that commitment paid off when he was nominated for the position of US Attorney of the Northern District of Ohio.
The Senate confirmed him unanimously in 2009 – a point Biden made after announcing the new nomination. Dettelbach served in the position until 2016, when he resigned and returned to practice law at BakerHostetler, where he now co-leads the White Collar, Investigations and Securities Enforcement and Litigation team.
The president called Dettelbach qualified and insisted he would be ready to lead on day one, highlighting the former prosecutor’s extensive experience working with law enforcement. If experience in – or, at least, tangential to – law enforcement is the only consideration, he’s certainly qualified. But unfortunately for the would-be lawyer-turned-cop, there’s a bit more to it.
That Activist Millstone
President Biden’s first nominee to lead the ATF, David Chipman, had been an agent at the bureau himself – but he had also been a vocal activist, working with a bevy of gun control groups and airing his anti-Second Amendment views in the public eye for years. Ultimately, that advocacy proved a millstone around his neck, sinking his chance at leading the agency before his confirmation could even come to a vote.
Dettelbach may not boast quite the gun-grabber resumé Chipman has, but he wears that activist millstone all the same. In 2018, Biden’s newest nominee was the Democratic Party’s pick for Ohio’s attorney general, though the people of Ohio rejected him in favor of the more pro-gun Republican, Dave Yost. Dettelbach was endorsed then – as he is now – by anti-gun billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s ironically named answer to the NRA, Everytown for Gun Safety, one of many groups Chipman worked with while lobbying for strict gun control. In the 2018 campaign, Dettelbach advocated for universal background checks and a new assault weapons ban.
After Biden’s introduction Monday, the lawyer took the podium to praise the ATF as well as the Biden administration’s dedication to putting an end to homemade firearms, more commonly known as “ghost guns.” It’s clear that, as the president said, Dettelbach is ready to lead the bureau on day one – and that, if confirmed, he’ll be the new face of Biden’s war on guns.
But, of course, he wears that millstone – and in the age of the internet, there’s no taking it off long enough to be confirmed. While the president calls his new nominee a “non-controversial” candidate, the likelihood of any Republican support in the Senate seems slim to none. While most Democrats and independents are, at least to some degree, in favor of disarming the people, Dettelbach’s calls for an assault weapons ban and universal background checks will likely be a problem for Sens. Jon Tester (D-MT), Angus King (I-ME), and Joe Manchin (D-WV), all of whom have voted against or, at least, spoken out against both measures in the past. Dettelbach may be less controversial than Chipman, but his way may well be blocked by the same three senators.