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In the wake of mass murders by gunmen in Buffalo and Uvalde, Americans once again find themselves in all too familiar territory: grieving for the loss of life on the one hand and grappling with the issue of preventing future gun violence on the other.
Many believe the problem is the number of guns and easy access to guns. Others argue that mass murders are a mental health problem. But in my time as a prosecutor and US Senator, and frankly as a gun owner, I found that there seems to be one immediate plan of action that everyone agrees should be taken: vigorously enforce the federal firearms laws that are currently on the books. It’s not a panacea – just a start.
The problem, however, is that we can’t effectively do that when the agency that has been tasked with enforcing our nation’s gun laws has not had a Senate confirmed director in seven years. That has to change and the Senate has the opportunity to do so by immediately confirming Steve Dettlebach to the Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, more commonly known as ATF.
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Steve is an outstanding choice for this important position. Like me, Steve is a former US Attorney. He earned high marks as a prosecutor and for leading the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Ohio, from 2009-2016.
I first met Steve over a decade ago when I spoke at his US Attorney orientation. He later invited me to speak to his office about my prosecution of the horrible 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. It was a story of seeking justice for a deadly, racist attack on a place of worship, which now certainly would have involved the ATF had it occurred today.
I remember thinking how innovative and even unusual it was to have a prosecutor from the Deep South come north to talk about leadership and justice in a racially charged church bombing that occurred so long ago. But Steve understood that leadership is about bringing people together to raise up the struggle for justice.
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I also learned that Steve was not just about talk – he is a man of commitment and action. For instance, they formed a civil rights unit within the U.S. Attorney’s office and prosecuted many cases involving attacks on religious liberty, including the arson of a predominantly African American Church in Conneaut, Ohio and the tragic torching of Ohio’s largest mosque.
That’s Steve Dettelbach. He tackles hard problems by trying to bring people together. Steve walks the walk. He tackles a problem by seeking solutions from all angles. That’s why he enjoys the support of a wide range of law enforcement groups from both sides of the political aisle, including the National Sheriff’s Association, eight former ATF heads from both political parties since the Reagan administration, and a large and bipartisan group of former DOJ officials, including many Trump appointees, and many more.
At his Senate confirmation hearing Steve offered thoughtful and considerate ideas in the midst of a crisis while facing partisan rancor over crime and gun violence.
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Steve understands that as director he cannot legislate, he can only enforce. But he also understands that there has to be a strategy to law enforcement and that has to come from the top of the agency.
I have seen a lot of Senate confirmation hearings, so not much is new to me. But it’s hard to imagine how difficult and tense it was for him entering that hearing on an already divisive issue and also in the immediate wake of a national tragedy.
It was truly a trial by fire. And yet watching Steve’s measured and meaningful testimony, I can only echo the public words spoken by my good friend Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, after the hearing: “This guy is the right guy.”
The ATF is more critical than ever. The dedicated agents there, with whom I have worked for decades, need and deserve stable and professional leadership. Steve Dettelbach provides just that.
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There is a lot of debate and discussion that must come to solve the problems of gun violence in this nation. And I know that some of it will occasion passionate disagreement as we try to protect the public and preserve Second Amendment rights. But as a former prosecutor, Senator and current gun owner, I know that there is also something real and concrete in the Senate can immediately do: confirm Steve Dettelbach as ATF Director.
He is the “right guy” for this moment.