The new director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives took the agency’s helm last month at a time when gun violence and extremism are on the rise, putting him among a handful of top federal officials tasked with preventing and responding to high-profile incidents of violent crime rocking the nation.
“I think the first thing we need to do is to be honest about the fact that we have a problem,” Steve Dettelbach, the ATF’s first Senate-approved leader in seven years, told CNN in an interview this week. “I will tell you, it’s gotten more bold, more brazen and more violent.”
For Dettelbach, some of the problems on his hands are personal. With officials warning that faith-based communities will continue to be the targets of violence, he says his own faith has given him an important perspective on the matter.
“For too long – and I say this as somebody who’s dealt with a lot of victims in hate crimes and somebody who is Jewish American and raising Jewish children in this country – for too long I think it was too easy for us to write off some of the rhetoric that was going on as kind of harmless, crazy rhetoric right until it wasn’t harmless anymore,” he said.
“I think anti-religious violence is a very real and troubling thing that we’re facing. And it doesn’t just go to any one group. Whether you’re Muslim, whether you’re Jewish, whether you’re Christian,” Dettelbach added. “I see reports of crimes that come across my phone daily and we’re facing a lot of anti-religious violence.”
Top officials with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security have warned that faith-based communities will likely remain targets for violence, urging state and local partners to evaluate their security postures for mass gathering events and at houses of worship.
Online forums linked to domestic violent extremists have referenced Jewish targets tied to conspiracy theories about Covid-19, the outcome of the 2020 election and “even the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and resettlement of Afghans to the United States,” according to an FBI and DHS letter obtained by CNN.
As a father, Dettelbach’s message to other parents concerned about their kids’ safety at school was an honest one: his agency will be relentless in its work to combat gun violence.
“There’s absolutely nothing that a dad or a leader of a law enforcement agency can say to those families, except that we’re going to be doing our best at ATF 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to try and help solve this problem,” he said.
Dettelbach also took control of the agency at a time when the country is experiencing a surge in gun violence and a spate of mass shootings. Among other things, he’s in charge of enforcing the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which, after being signed into law in June by President Joe Biden, became the most significant new federal legislation to address gun violence in decades.
Asked whether it feels there is an endless race against time to try to stop the next shooting, Dettelbach said: “You can call it an endless race to try and save people. You can call it the pounding, the pounding of (that’s) in my head, in our heads all the time.”
“So do I feel pressure? Yeah, I feel pressure. But it’s no more pressure than the 5,000 folks at ATF have been feeling for years trying to deal with this,” he said.
CNN’s Hannah Rabinowitz and Veronica Stracqualursi contributed to this report.