Texas massacre casts shadow over hearing for ATF pick

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. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) (J. Scott Applewhite, Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Less than a day after a gunman massacred 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Texas, a Wednesday Senate hearing for President Joe Biden’s pick to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives reflected the deep political divisions over guns.

Steve Dettelbach would be the first confirmed head of the ATF in seven years and the process could be fraught. For his part, Dettelbach vowed to run the agency without political interference in the hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“Politics can play no role in law enforcement. None at all,” he said.

Biden noted the bipartisan support for Dettelbach at an event to sign an executive order on policing as he urged support for the head of the federal agency that enforces gun laws. “For seven years we’ve been without anyone in charge,” he said. "It’s time for action.”

The Texas massacre carried out with an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle cast a long shadow over the hearing, with Democrats making emotional pleas to restrict the similar firearms, especially for younger buyers. Salvador Ramos, 18, bought the guns legally shortly after his birthday, authorities have said. It was the second mass killing of the month carried about by an 18-year-old with an AR-15-style semi-automatic. Authorities say Payton Gendron drove several hours to a Black community in Buffalo and killed 10 people.

“The shooters in Texas and New York weren’t able to buy a beer, but they were old enough to buy an assault weapon,” said Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California. Shootings rose sharply after the decade-long federal assault weapons ban expired in 2004, she said.

“The kind of weapons being used by the Russians in Ukraine have no place in a school,” said Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Still, a California law requiring people to be 21 to buy a semiautomatic weapon was recently overturned by a federal appeals court.

The Texas attack was the deadliest school shooting in the U.S. since a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012. Congress has passed little substantial federal legislation to curb gun violence in America since then.

Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas questioned Dettlebach Wednesday on the definition of the term “assault weapon,” a politicized term that can refer to various firearms.

“The point is, there’s really no such thing as a category of assault weapons,” he said.

Dettlebach, a former federal prosecutor who has previously supported a ban, said a legal definition would have to come from Congress. “I acknowledge that would be a difficult task to define assault weapons,” he said.

Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, meanwhile, said the country should be looking at the “root causes of rampage violence” rather than passing new gun restrictions.

“It raises questions – could things like fatherlessness, the breakdown of families, isolation from civil society and glorification of violence be contributing factors?” Lee said.

Both Republican and Democratic administrations have failed to get nominees for the ATF position through the politically fraught process since the director’s position was made confirmable in 2006. Since then, only one nominee, former U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones, has been confirmed.

Biden had to withdraw the nomination of his first ATF nominee, gun control advocate David Chipman, after it stalled for months because of opposition from Republicans and some Democrats in the Senate. The nominee will need a simple majority to be confirmed.


Whitehurst reported from Salt Lake City. Associated Press writer Fatima Hussein in Washington contributed to this report.