After the deadly mass shooting left 10 dead in Buffalo this weekend, the White House is significantly stepping up its push for the Senate to confirm Joe Biden’s top gun regulator.
Administration officials had already been highlighting the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ central role in fighting hate crimes, domestic terrorism and gun violence ahead the shooting in Buffalo, in which an 18-year-old racist targeted a Black neighborhood grocery store. But with Biden set to visit the city on Tuesday, they’re trying to refocus attention on Steve Dettelbach’s nomination to head the agency by spotlighting his record overseeing prosecutions in cases involving racially-motivated violence.
“It’s our hope that the Senate swiftly confirms Steve Dettelbach to lead ATF – particularly given his track record of prosecuting hate crimes – so Dettelbach can help the Bureau redouble their work fighting domestic terrorism and gun crime,” Mike Gwin, a White House spokesman, said on Monday.
The ATF has not had a permanent director since 2015. And Biden’s first pick for the post, David Chipman, was withdrawn in September amid opposition from moderate Democrats. Hoping to secure the 50 votes needed for Dettelbach, the gun-control group Everytown for Gun Safety began circulating a memo on Monday to Senate offices that focuses specifically on his history of fighting violent extremism both from his time as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio and as chairman of the Attorney General’s Civil Rights Advisory Subcommittee.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), meanwhile, told POLITICO he expects the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold its first hearing on Dettelbach’s nomination before the Senate leaves for recess at the end of next week.
The shooting in Buffalo was just one of several this past weekend. They came amid a flurry of activity by Biden honoring the sacrifices of law enforcement personnel and touting the administration’s efforts to expand funding to fight rising violent crime. While fulsome rebukes to Dettelbach may still materialize, the nomination has so far been marked by a notable, if surprising, lack of coordinated opposition. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearm industry trade association that played a major role in torpedoing Chipman’s nomination, has so far not engaged nearly as aggressively on Dettelbach’s. But the group indicated that it was preparing to weigh in around his first hearing.
Dettelbach has been crisscrossing the country, often taking long trips from his home base in Cleveland, to meet with law enforcement and other interest groups, racking up a slew of endorsements that officials are deploying to neutralize any attacks on his record. Sen. Sherod Brown (D-Ohio), one of his home state senators, said the attacks in Buffalo and California made clear, “law enforcement officials understand the importance of confirming someone with a proven track record of fighting domestic extremism to lead the ATF.”
Among Dettelbach’s endorsers are the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, which represents many rank-and-file ATF agents; Major County Sheriffs of America; seven members of the team who convicted Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing case; and International Association of Chiefs of Police, where he was spotted attending a police week reception last week in Washington.
“I can’t remember the last time I saw a nominee doing the rounds on the receptions — if ever,” the person who saw him said.
If Dettelbach is able to secure 50 votes in the Senate, it would represent a significant victory for Biden. The president has been stymied in his efforts to get Congress to expand background checks, renew a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and approve billions in new funding he proposed to address violent crime. And some of the more aggressive gun-control advocates expressed dismay on Monday that the White House—and Democratic Senate leaders—did not push hard for a reconsideration of new laws in the wake of the Buffalo shooting.
“On issues they think are important—like abortion—they hold a vote to show voters they are fulfilling the promises they made. On this one [background checks and stronger gun laws), they didn’t,” said Igor Volsky, executive director of the advocacy group Guns Down America. “You have a key thing that underscores the need for reform and Biden and [Senate Majority leader Chuck] Schumer failed to lay out a vision to prevent this from happening again.”
In the Everytown memo, the gun-control group laid out Dettelbach’s own history of taking on domestic extremism, including overseeing the prosecution of a man who set fire to the First Azusa Apostolic Faith Church of God in Conneaut, Ohio—the area’s only predominantly Black church.
In another case highlighted in the memo Dettelbach helped lead the prosecution of a Toledo man with a prior homicide conviction who was described as “a one-man army of racial and religious hate.” The alleged neo-Nazi, Richard Schmidt, illegally possessed of 18 firearms, body armor and more than 40,000 rounds of ammo—and he was believed to be targeting Jewish and Black community leaders in Detroit, according to the organization.
“He was always someone who would listen to the agents and prosecute cases when appropriate. If there was a case that he didn’t think merited prosecution, he would say that as well, which was something that I respected,” Bob Browning, a former ATF special agent in charge in Ohio who worked on cases with Biden’s ATF nominee, said in an interview.
“He also is very familiar with the Department of Justice—he’s intimately familiar with interacting with Senate members and he can take the agency where it needs to go.”
Laura Barrón-López and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.