Steven Dettelbach – Joe Biden’s appointment to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) – recently appeared twice on Capitol Hill to argue in favor of that agency’s funding and to answer questions about its priorities and activities. During those appearances he repeatedly underscored he is not a firearms expert and could not himself define what an “assault weapon” is. These were remarkable admissions from a man whose job is to oversee an agency that enforces highly technical federal firearm laws. A reasonable person might ask how Dettelbach can possibly be qualified to direct ATF or whether he occupies that post solely as a compliant puppet to execute the White House’s political orders.
The enforcement of federal firearms laws requires a complex understanding of how abstract legal rules apply to concrete technology. Any official tasked with enforcing federal firearm laws should – in addition to a working knowledge of the relevant statutes and regulations – have at least basic competency in using guns, experience with firearm commerce, and some familiarity with what is colloquially known as “gun culture.”
Dettelbach has admitted that he possesses none of these skills or experience. Indeed, it was established during his confirmation proceedings for ATF director that he has never owned a gun, has never been issued a gun in a professional capacity, and was unsure if he had even shot a gun within the five years preceding his nomination. Not only could Dettelbach not define “assault weapon,” he was unable to explain how it had been defined under the previous federal ban in effect from 1994 to 2004.
Dettelbach has been asked about “assault weapons” ever since Biden first nominated him as ATF director, including not just during his two recent Capitol Hill appearances but during his original ATF confirmation hearing and in written follow-up queries submitted by senators. It’s an important and topical question, because Biden and members of his party are eager to ban “assault weapons” and claim doing so will lower crime. Meanwhile, millions upon millions of law-abiding Americans own guns that – depending on how an “assault weapon” is defined – could be swept up in a ban and retroactively subject them to raids on their homes, seizure of their lawfully acquired firearms, and conviction and imprisonment.
Dettelbach’s consistent tactic when asked to define “assault weapons” is to claim that his job as ATF director is to enforce the law and to defer to legislative judgments on what is and is not legal. He has also indicated that he relies on the expertise of career ATF employees to guide him on highly technical matters.
Those would indeed be laudable tendencies in an ATF director, but they seem disingenuous given Dettelbach’s own past. He advocated for banning “assault weapons” as a political candidate in 2018 and has repeatedly called for additional federal gun controls. Moreover, as discussed extensively during last week’s ATF oversight hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, the ATF under Dettelbach is currently promulgating a rule that rejects a decade of ATF technical guidance on pistol stabilizing braces to promote Joe Biden’s gun control agenda.
It’s true that because of their broad managerial responsibilities, agency directors may have less specific subject matter expertise than some of the career personnel in their organizations and may depend on those career personnel to brief them on technical matters. This does not, however, absolve Dettelbach of understanding policies he himself has publicly promoted nor of ensuring the agency that he directs administers the laws under its jurisdiction consistently and without undue political interference.
Dettelbach’s refusal to go on record with a definition of “assault weapon” shows not just a basic lack of professionalism, preparation, and competence but a willingness to go along with any gun ban that is supported by the Biden Administration, no matter how broad or ineffective at targeting crime. And his willingness to retroactively enforce an interpretation of the law that reverses years of agency guidance and rulings shows it is the political whims of his White House patron, and not the expertise of his agency’s career staff, that guide his official decision-making.
At a time when Americans have been given little reason to trust in the institutions of government, the Biden Administration seem committed to further eroding that trust to pursue an extreme political agenda.