President Joe Biden on Monday announced he was nominating former federal prosecutor Steve Dettelbach to run the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, thrusting the former US attorney into what will likely be a tough confirmation fight.
Dettelbach was previously unanimously confirmed by the Senate to serve as the US attorney for the Northern District of Ohio under President Barack Obama. He is currently a partner at BakerHostetler and helps lead the firm’s white collar, investigations and securities enforcement and litigation team.
Administration officials acknowledge Dettelbach faces long odds in the Senate largely because gun-rights groups routinely oppose any nominee for the agency that regulates guns. The ATF has operated under a series of acting directors since its last Senate-confirmed leader stepped down in 2015, and the Senate last confirmed an ATF nominee in 2013.
“Steve’s record makes him ready on day one to lead this agency,” Biden said at the White House on Monday, describing him as “immensely qualified.”
But Dettelbach is relatively unknown among groups with interest in gun issues. That has raised skepticism among law enforcement groups, which often play a large role in the political debate over ATF. It is also unclear what the nomination means for Marvin Richardson, the current acting director a veteran agent who is popular among ATF employees and agents.
Dettelbach has held positions within the Justice Department, the Senate Judiciary Committee and has served on the Ohio Ethics Commission. He ran for attorney general of Ohio in 2018 but lost to Republican Dave Yost in the general election.
Under the Obama administration, he was appointed to advisory committees for Attorneys General Loretta Lynch and Eric Holder while serving as a US attorney.
He previously served as counsel for the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary. Dettelbach also served as the assistant US attorney in Cleveland and worked on the organized crime and corruption task force. He started his career in the Justice Department’s civil rights division during the Clinton administration.
Tough road to confirmation
The ATF post is a tough confirmation fight that this White House knows well.
Biden had previously nominated David Chipman, a former ATF career official, to lead the agency. But the White House withdrew Chipman’s nomination in September after it became clear he did not have the votes in the Senate to get confirmed. Some senators questioned if his past record as an advocate for stricter gun laws would make him a less effective director.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, acknowledged the tough road ahead in a statement.
“Confirming a qualified nominee to lead ATF should be a unifying priority in the Senate, yet the problem is the same one that has foiled ATF confirmations since 2015: the gun lobby,” Durbin said, calling Dettelbach a “a highly respected former US attorney and career prosecutor.”
Leaders of major gun control groups praised Dettelbach’s nomination and urged the Senate to swiftly confirm him. John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said in a statement that Dettelbach would be a “strong leader” and thanked the Biden administration for “doubling down on its commitment to gun safety.”
The nomination comes the same day the President announced new firearm regulations to contain the use of so-called “ghost guns,” which are self-assembled firearms that do not have serial numbers, making them difficult to track and regulate.
Ghost guns are often put together with parts sold online, which allows buyers to sidestep a background check. These weapons are sometimes referred to as “privately made firearms,” or PMFs, by officials.
Biden last year described gun violence in America as an “epidemic” and called it an “international embarrassment,” after a string of mass shootings.