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Steve Dettelbach steps in at a critical time to lead the ATF

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, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, May 25, 2022, the morning after the killing of at least 19 children by a teenage gunman at a Texas elementary school.
J. Scott Applewhite
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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, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, May 25, 2022, the morning after the killing of at least 19 children by a teenage gunman at a Texas elementary school.

Updated July 19, 2022 at 11:30 AM ET

On the wall outside the director's fifth-floor suite at ATF headquarters hang photographs of the men who have led the agency. The final photo dates to 2015, when the last Senate-confirmed boss left office. Now, seven years later, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives finally has a new confirmed director: Steve Dettelbach.

The former U.S. attorney steps into the ATF job at a critical time.

"Crime is rising. Firearms crime is rising. Mass shootings are rising. Domestic extremism and the sort of undercurrents of violence and domestic extremist actions is rising," Dettelbach said in an interview with NPR.

"These are all public safety threats. Those are all things that are in the wheelhouse of ATF to address. And I hope to be able to to work with the ATF and the other partners to address them and try and make things better."

A series of mass shootings that killed 38 people over two months — at a school, a grocery store and an Independence Day parade — has shocked the nation and put pressure on the federal government to act.

"Look, I'd be naive to say that those things aren't going to to continue to happen," Dettelbach said when asked if there would be more shootings like those in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, N.Y. "It's horrible. It's jarring. I hope people never get used to it."

Dettelbach was also adamant that despite the steady drumbeat of mass shootings, "it is not acceptable to accept firearms violence is part of our national narrative. It's just not."

"It's not part of the way that people in our country want to raise their families. It's not part of the way that the people who own firearms want to live," he said. "It's not part of the American way. We are not going to accept it."

ATF and others in law enforcement owe it to the survivors and victims to do everything in their power to deal with the problem of gun violence, Dettelbach said, pointing out that gun violence isn't just mass shootings. There's a steady drumbeat of shootings that almost never make the news but that kill more than 100 people every day, he said. And the government has a duty to help and to protect all of those people as well.

"So to say that the pressure is on is an understatement," he said. "But the pressure is on because it's our job in law enforcement to help people be safer. Can we always succeed? No. But to give up trying, that's not going to happen at ATF. I know that."

Working to drive down gun violence and make the public feel safer

U.S. President Joe Bidens nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Steve Dettelbach speaks during an event about gun violence in the Rose Garden of the White House April 11, 2022.
Drew Angerer / Getty Images
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Getty Images
U.S. President Joe Bidens nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Steve Dettelbach speaks during an event about gun violence in the Rose Garden of the White House April 11, 2022.

There's no one particular thing driving the recent violence, Dettelbach said. Instead, it's a combination of things, and the mix varies in different parts of the country.

That means that the strategies to combat it have to be tailored in order to succeed and since ATF is a small agency, with around 5,000 employees total,
it will need to work with state and local partners to succeed. And that may mean helping solve cold homicides in one part of the country and focusing on violent gun cases or gun trafficking in another.

"I think what I would say is we have to be open to new ideas and creative ways of trying to work together to to fight this problem," Dettelbach said.

Driving down violent crime is a goal of law enforcement writ large, as well as the Biden White House, which has put a lot of stock in getting a Senate-confirmed ATF director in place.

President Biden sees the confirmation of an ATF director as an important piece of the administration's response to the surge in gun violence. His first pick for the post failed to win confirmation due to fierce opposition from gun rights groups. A long list of nominees put forward in recent years by Republicans and Democrats have faced a similar fate. Dettelbach managed to squeak through the Senate with bipartisan support.

Now that he's in the job, Dettelbach says he wants to serve as an advocate for ATF, to ensure it gets the support and resources its needs. But he also will work to make sure that it gets the respect he says it deserves, and that the public knows and values of the agency's work.

"ATF was crucial in running the trace that helped catch the Highland Park shooter just two weeks ago," Dettelbach said about the Independence Day shooting in Illinois. "People need to know that. People need to know that that wasn't easy."

His job is to "remind people of the facts so that ATF men and women who are out there risking their lives can be working with the public, who understand what they're doing to help the public be safe," he said.

That also involves trying boost morale at an agency that has faced years of instability.

Both tasks are challenging in the best of times, let alone in the middle of what the president calls an epidemic of gun violence.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.