Does the man enforcing the country’s gun laws have the tools to do the job?

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WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 19:  US Attorney General Merrick Garland (R) passed the flag to Steven Dettelbach (L) after swearing him in as the second person to be confirmed by Congress as the Director of The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) at the ATF headquarters on July 19, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 19: US Attorney General Merrick Garland (R) passed the flag to Steven Dettelbach (L) after swearing him in as the second person to be confirmed by Congress as the Director of The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) at the ATF headquarters on July 19, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

Find an online archive of gun violence in America at the Gun Violence Archive. Find the ATF's national firearms commerce and tracking assessments from 2022 here and 2023 here.

Steven Dettelbach is the current head of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms.

It's a position that went without a permanent director for seven years.

And while he’s been on the job – the number of gun deaths has not let up.

"One of the things I get a little nervous about is that somehow people will come to accept it, that this level of gun violence in the United States of America is kind of who we are as Americans. Part of our culture. It is not."

Dettelbach wants to do more, but ATF is limited to what Congress legislates. Can Dettelbach realistically make changes to how ATF enforces federal gun laws?

"We have to be open to new ideas. We have to be open to new partnerships. We have to be open to a new and urgent sense of unity in our common mission," he says.

Today, On Point: We sit down with ATF director Steven Dettelbach to talk about his first year on the job.


Steven Dettelbach, director at ATF, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the federal agency tapped with enforcing the country’s gun laws.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives states its mission as the following, quote:

"ATF protects the public from crimes involving firearms, explosives, arson, and the diversion of alcohol and tobacco products. Regulates lawful commerce in firearms and explosives, and provides worldwide support to law enforcement, public safety, and industry partners."

End quote. That's a critically important mission in a country with one of the highest rates of gun deaths in the world. We are just over halfway through this year, and there have already been 22,686-gun related deaths in the United States. And yet due to resistance from the gun lobby and from Republican members of Congress, ATF has been hobbled and underfunded.

It went without a permanent director for seven years. One ATF employee put it as this, quote:

"We are asked to do our jobs with both hands tied behind our backs and our feet in leg irons."

End quote. Last year, ATF finally got a permanent director. Steven Dettelbach is a former civil rights lawyer and a former U.S. attorney in Ohio.

He was sworn in as ATF director on July 13, 2022. Now, he will be joining us today to look back on his first year, and towards challenges ahead for ATF. And it looks like we actually do have him on the line now. So Director Dettelbach, welcome to On Point.

STEVEN DETTELBACH: Thanks for having me. Really appreciate it.

CHAKRABARTI: So it's been probably quite an event eventful year for you as the first permanent director in seven years for ATF. I wonder what you think the impact is on ATF for not having had a permanent director for that long? How has it impacted ATF's ability to fulfill its mission?

DETTELBACH: As the person who's been here now for a year and who's worked as a federal prosecutor with ATF for decades, right? Since I started out as a prosecutor in 1992. Here's my impressions, which is ATF is an agency where there's an incredible group of people doing a lot of very dangerous, important work. Literally running towards the gunfire, catching the most violent people, and taking them out of the population. And they don't get a lot of recognition.

ATF, over my career, I think it's something I said when I got nominated. Every success is anonymous, and every accident is existential. It's just not fair. It's not right. And it's not safe for the American people. So part of, I think, my role as director is to make sure people really understand the incredible people, the incredible work that's going on from this group of just over 5,000 people who are working every day to try to protect Americans from violent crime.

I don't think people know enough about ATF, and I think part of that is the fact that we haven't had a Senate-confirmed director in far too long.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Can I just ask you then to add a little bit more on what you observed as your experience prior to becoming director when you were, let's say, during your time as U.S. Attorney in the Northern District of Ohio?

Because as you just heard, I read that quote from an ATF employee who a couple of years ago said, because of a whole bunch of reasons, not the work that's being done on the ground by the individual inspectors and agents, but by political, for political reasons, that we are asked to do our jobs with both hands tied behind our back and our feet in leg irons.

So I'm wondering, when you were U.S. attorney in Ohio, what did you observe about, what were the things holding ATF back when you were partnering with them on cases?

DETTELBACH: So glad to answer that question, Meghna, due to the sort of the world we live in technology. I didn't hear the beginning quote.


DETTELBACH: But I can tell you what I think. Which is that the ATF's mission is actually a tremendously consensus driven and non-controversial mission, which is we deal with violent crime. We're the federal agency that's sole mission is to deal with violent crime, working with state and local law enforcement.

We probably work closer with state and local tribal police departments, agencies than anybody else in the federal government, all the time. There is also a vigorous and important debate that goes on in our country about issues relating to firearms. And I'm not minimizing it, it's an important debate.

It relates to public safety, the protection of rights and sometimes, as a result of that debate, people overlook the majority of incredible work that's going on at the ATF. And sometimes in striking the appropriate balance between protecting victims and public safety and making sure we also preserve people's rights.

Right? There are measures that drag ATF in. It's my job to make sure we stay true to the North Star, which is public safety. It's protecting people from violent crime, and we're available for consultation from members of Congress of either party on technical questions. But the decisions about policy in this country get made by the president and by the members of Congress, not by people at ATF.

CHAKRABARTI: Mm-hmm. No point taken, but this is why I'm asking you to translate those policy decisions into what's actually happening on the ground in terms of ATF's ability to do what it wants to do as an agency, what the agents and inspectors wish they could do as an agency. So let me just ask again, leaning on your experience as a U.S. attorney, I presume that you had frequent opportunity to partner with ATF agents or supervisors in various cases.

Was there ever a time when they came to you and said, "We would like to do A, B and C to help you with this certain case, but we can't. Because we're underfunded, we don't have enough agents. We're not allowed to even keep electronic records on firearms."

DETTELBACH: So look, any law enforcement executive in the country, they're being honest, is going to tell you that they could use more resources.

And ATF is no exception. We are lucky the president has been very aggressive in requesting more ATF resources. And we receive some more resources in the last funding cycle. But your question, I think, hits a point, Meghna. Which is, look, we are a very small agency. 5,000 to 6,000 folks, and only 2,500 or so of those are actually badge-carrying, gun-carrying ATF agents and another 800 or so inspectors, facing a huge problem.

Violent crime and specifically firearms crime in this country is a massive public safety threat. It is pounding on innocent Americans every single day. I see that, I meet with those people. I meet with police chiefs, I meet with victims of crime. And it is absolutely true to say, "Look, we could do more with more."

That's not a whine. The men and women of ATF are not whiners. They are doers. They are out there fighting every day. And we're going to keep doing that. But it is accurate that, when you start taking resources away, of a pressing issue like violent crime, you do endanger public safety, it's not as possible to do that.

You mentioned what I did in Cleveland, and in Maryland and in D.C. and in the Department of Justice, all those places I was a federal prosecutor. I saw ATF step up despite those restraints, time after time. You go back to the '90s, when we had that horrible spate of arsons that were directed at African American churches in the United States.

It was ATF that was one of the leading people in the national church arts and task force to deal with that. You look at the First World Trade Center bombing in 1993, ATF on the scene, finding key pieces of evidence that allowed us to solve that crime and catch people.

You look at Oklahoma City. With our own offices bombed and in shambles, the National Response Team, which this week is in Newark, New Jersey, responding to a horrible fire. And in Wyoming, responding to a horrible fire. They're on the rubble, literally piecing things together. And then, when I'm U.S. attorney, doing a horrible gang case in Youngstown, Ohio, where there are people who are just shooting up the town.

Incredibly violent drug dealers in the town. It's ATF who brings the LSP gang case, which I vividly remember. You asked about my time in Ohio. One of the best cases. So yes, we could do more of that though, even more of that with additional resources.

CHAKRABARTI: So I just want to emphasize something. I completely understand that ATF is both a practically and politically beleaguered agency, right? And it's doing important work on the ground. Absolutely true. And I think a critical function of any agency head is to show publicly their support. They're cheerleading for the men and women who are doing the daily tough work, of trying to keep the citizens of this country safe. So I hear everything you're saying on that point.

But at the same time, if we're frank, Director Dettelbach, you're also in a political position. You're an appointee of the Biden administration who had to go through a rough confirmation process.

So honestly speaking, are there things that you wish you could say about what ATF needs or what needs to be done to strengthen the agency that you simply, for political reasons, feel that you cannot?

DETTELBACH: No, I don't think, I don't think it's the case that I can't say these things. I just think it's the case that you ask yourself, "Okay, where can my voice add to the equation?"

And the president has spoken out for the administration, and I agree with the president on provisions that he believes should be enacted into law. And so I'm not shy about that. I don't think that's something that as a member of the administration I shouldn't support, and I do very much.

However, the entire conversation can't be about the politics. Somebody has got to also worry about effectuating, implementing, doing the hard work of making sure we're enforcing all the laws and using all the tools that we have. So to me it's a question of, "Where does your voice really resound and really make a difference?"

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Today, we're joined by Stephen Dettelbach. He is the director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He was confirmed last year, so this has been his first year on the job, after ATF went without a permanent Senate confirmed director for seven years.

Now, Director Dettelbach, there's something that you said earlier that I want to just explicitly say we are in agreement on. I don't want to get distracted by the politics, per se. But you had said, what impact do the politics have on the practical ability of ATF to do its job, to protect the American people.

That's exactly what I'm hoping to hear from you today, because what matters in the end is, are those agents and inspectors able to do what they can to help keep America safe from the proliferation of gun violence in this country? Forgive me for a second. I want to give listeners a little bit of background about why the politics does have an impact.

Because, for example in the Bureau's appropriation statute, it's two pages long. There's only 11 lines describing the agency's budget, roughly 11 lines, and then there's 76 or more than 70 additional lines with prescriptions on ATF's power. So curbing ATF's power, essentially. And that's a marked success of the gun lobby, I'd say, in restricting how effective ATF can be.

So one of those prescriptions, proscriptions, I should say, that we talked about on our show last year is, for example, ATF is not allowed, it is not allowed to digitize gun records or install search functions. So your agents have to search through paper records for cases that they're working on.

Has that changed at all? Should it be changed?

DETTELBACH: Let me describe what happens at ATF when a firearms trace is run, because that's really what you're referring to. ATF, by statute, is the agency that is given the ability to trace crime guns. So these are firearms at a local law enforcement agency or somebody who's actually investigating a crime, as you say, ask for a trace on.

A great example is a year ago in July 4 in Chicago, where there was that horrible Highland Park massacre, and they get the gun and they have a serial number on the gun and they ask ATF, "We need an urgent trace on this firearm." So what happens after that trace request happened? Which really, I think shines light on your question.

It goes to our tracing center, and we run the trace. As you say, there are significant restrictions by law on our ability to digitize those kind of tracing records. We get, when a business goes, a firearms dealer goes out of business, they're required to send us their out of business records, okay?

And we get millions a month, and they're in boxes and beat up paper. And there are people who literally sit. Their job is to just take the staples out of these millions of things and try to flatten them. And then we scan them, right? But as far as I know, we are the only customer of Adobe Acrobat that actually pays extra money to have search capability taken out of that software.

So that we can't search it in certain ways, because we're complying with that federal law that you mentioned. So what do we do? We will visually try to do traces. We try to organize things, just in files, right? In dates, order something so we can find things quicker. But for a while there were so many backed up records, that we were we bought a bunch of Conex Freight cars and they were sitting in our parking lot. And if a trace involved one of those records, people would have to go outside into the parking lot, into these cars and go through these stacks of boxes. And it is not ideal.

It is not our choice as to those things, and we're going to comply with every one of those appropriations provisions. Obviously, it's the law. We will, and we have complied. And that's a policy choice that gets made, right? By the Congress, that we live with. So I hope that sort of vivid description of what actually is happening, lets you understand, okay, other people set the rules.

We comply with them all. And here's what it means in real terms, as we try to help that state and local law enforcement agency catch that killer.

CHAKRABARTI: It means asking Adobe Acrobat to do actually less than it's programmed or designed to do. It's quite remarkable.

The details really do matter and I appreciate you sharing them with us. Director Dettelbach, because there's some other aspects of how ATF has been, I keep using the word hobbled. And perhaps that's too generous of a word. Maybe it's had its knees cut out from under it. Because, for example, there's another one, and I want to know if this has changed at all or if you see a possible change coming in the future.

ATF has recommended that it needs more than 850 inspectors, 850 additional inspectors, I should say, to keep up with just basic compliance inspections for gun dealers. They also have, right now, fewer special agents for a national bureau then the Washington, D.C. Metro Police has sworn officers. Is there any hope on the horizon for that understaffing, that critical understaffing problem to be addressed, you think, by Congress?

DETTELBACH: So look, at ATF, let me just repeat what I said. I know, I'm going to answer your question, Meghna. But our job at ATF is to take what we are given, and to squeeze every last bit of public safety out of it. That's what we do, right? And we will continue to do that. If Congress says we have to search records, however we have to search 'em, that's what we're going to do.

And we're going to get back to the Highland Park police department, to the FBI, to the people in Wisconsin, and we are going to absolutely do our job. Now, with respect to the number of people we have asked for in the past and gotten recently, some increases, but the numbers speak for themselves, as you said.

There are 800 or so industry operations investigators who are out there right now inspecting firearms dealers to ensure that they're complying. By the way, the vast majority of firearms dealers in the United States are law abiding businesses. And they comply with the law, and we have a good relationship with them 'cuz we're there to help make sure that they're doing everything they can to prevent guns from getting to the wrong people.

But there are some that are not, right? And our job is to identify and either correct or take action against those. With those 800, we have to inspect, up near just shy of 100,000 dealers, right? So it doesn't happen as frequently as we would like it to. And in addition to that, we have to do all the inspections for the explosives industry with those same 800 people.

Congress has said we have to expect every explosives manufacturer dealer in on a three-year cycle. And when somebody applies to be a new firearms dealer, we have to conduct the initial application inspection within a very short timeframe. So it's a crushing workload for those folks.

And I wouldn't be telling you the truth if I said that we were doing as many inspections every year as we think we should be. We're not. We try to focus as best we can on what we think are the most risky particular inspections to conduct. But it's a tough situation.

Those are great people. They walk into these gun stores alone. They sit there for as long as it takes to make sure that they're looking at the books and records and making sure people are complying with the law. And they do a very good job of trying to enforce it. In certain circumstances, we'll educate the person who's the dealer and say, "Hey, you're not doing this the right way. That's a paperwork mistake. This is the way you're supposed to do it." If a dealer is doing something willfully that is a public safety concern, they risk having their license revoked.

And those same inspectors are there to do that. They will work with dealers who are trying to do the right thing, and they will hold dealers accountable who are not.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So, you know what, I will concede that maybe it's a little unfair for me to ask you, "What will Congress do?" Okay. I'll take that.

I'll take that one on the chin. I understand. So let me rephrase a little bit here. Here's another point that we learned last year when we did our show about the condition that ATF has found itself in after years of being the subject of lobbying, or, I would say, the victim of lobbying by the gun industry.

Another fact is that ATFs budget has barely kept up with inflation over the past 10 years. It is sorely underfunded. Meanwhile, the FBI budget has gone up 62% customs and border patrol have received a 92% increase in their budget. So instead of me asking you, "What will Congress do?" Let me ask you this.

You've said several times that ATF is going to do the maximum that it can with the resource resources that it has. Are you going, or have you gone to members of Congress and said, "Look, our mission, that mission that I read at the top of the show, which is to protect the public from crimes involving firearms, explosives, arsons, and alcohol and tobacco products, that with the resources you have given us, ATF cannot completely or fully satisfy that mission."

DETTELBACH: I think that's self-evident, right? Look, there is no way that with the resources we have at ATF that we're going to stop gun crime and violent crime in the United States. That is, I think, just a fact of life that we all have to deal with. And as far as the message that I have delivered, and I'll tell you the same thing.

It's not my message only. I go around the country. I meet with chiefs of police, I meet with sheriffs, I meet with mayors, city council people, community activists. And I do that all over in different places. From Kentucky to Arizona, to New York, to North Dakota, Fargo, North Dakota a couple weeks ago, to Florida, to Georgia.

You name it, different places. People have a lot of different views in this country. I'll tell you something, I hear everywhere I go, from every chief, from every sheriff, from every mayor, every single one. "Please send us more ATF resources in my area. More agents, more analysts. We need more in inspectors.

Please send us more resources here because we're doing incredible work with you, but we can't do enough of it to keep up with the violent crime threat."

So that's not just my message. That is the message from law enforcement. People talk about the need to, you can't get public safety on the cheap, right?

You can't do that. Law enforcement needs support. Law enforcement needs funds. This is a situation where we have a gun crime out there that is very dangerous, that is threatening innocent people all over the country, and we need to fund the law enforcement agencies that are designed to combat that problem.

And ATF is one of those agencies on the federal level, a key one.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. And it's the only one that hasn't received an equivalent increase in its budget from Congress, as the FBI and Border Patrol has, no, go ahead. Go ahead.

DETTELBACH: Oh, yeah. I don't like to compare myself to the other agencies.

I like to compare myself to the threat, the threat we are facing is growing. The danger is growing. And it has been for some time. And so the notion that you would, the danger would be growing and that over all those years, I'm not talking about last year or any particular, but all those years that you're not spending, to keep up with that threat just doesn't make sense.

But I will say, the president asked for a significant budget, increased to ATF, and we had a group of people who supported that in Congress, and we received extra funding. We're grateful for that. But to say that, "We're done. And that's enough." I think is just not fair to the American people.

CHAKRABARTI: I don't know if you've ever had a conversation like the one I'm about to hypothesize, but have you ever had a chance to go to, let's say a member of Congress that's been constantly voting for these restrictions on ATF's ability to do its job, and have you ever thought about saying, "Look, that shooting that happened in your district, on X date, we could have traced that gun almost instantaneously, except you've made it impossible. Because we have to dig through tractor trailers of paper to find any information about the gun.

So help us improve this situation."

DETTELBACH: Yeah. Look, that's really, we keep our enforcement role, try to keep it, I think it's important to keep it totally out of any of the political fray. Individual cases, we don't discuss as they're going on with Congress, we try to tout our successes.

But I'll just be honest with you. I think that the temperature of the country in talking about gun violence is very high. Very high. And I think we are at a point where we need to try to sit down, and we can have very passionate views about this, but get to solutions that actually improve public safety, and we have a bunch of those solutions out there.

Do we have every solution out there? No, but we have a bunch of those solutions out there, now. And I don't know that individually trying to blame people for what's going on now is the best way forward to get to a consensus. That doesn't, that's just my view. I get that people are very passionate about facts, as you're pointing out.

But to me, if we talk about something like crime gun intelligence, which is a topic I talk about all the time that we haven't mentioned, crime gun intelligence, which is a real game changer in trying to combat a violent crime, that hasn't drawn the kind of controversy that other things have.

I try to focus with members of Congress on those things when I talk to them. Because I think we can find common ground and move things forward. Talking about the NIBIN system, the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, it's geeky stuff, but it's really important because it helps cops catch shooters.

Trigger pullers before they shoot again, talking about, you know, what we need to actually trace firearms. Talking about the touch DNA work that ATF lab people have developed over the last six years, which has brought the hit rate up from just in the single digits, two, three, 4%, to 50%. Think about that. A cartridge case is shot out the back of a firearm and a murder, and we can now use touch DNA to catch the killer in a way we never could before.

And working on bipartisan solutions, we I recently opened, did the ribbon cutting. On a new national correlation center in Wichita, Kansas with Senator Moran from Kansas. And that's going to be a game-changing violent crime center for detectives from New York to Florida, everywhere.

There are things, when I talk to people, when I have a chance to talk to people on this job, I try to talk about things we can work on to improve the lives of American. That's what the president asked me to do, and that's what I'm gonna do.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. I hear you when you say that going to people and pointing your finger at them and blaming them isn't going to work.

But at the same time, the American people are seeing, they're connecting the dots, right? Between the decisions made by members of Congress, and as you're talking about what's happening on the ground with ATF. So, let's call it accountability, rather than blame. Like I would say that for example, Congressman Jim Jordan knows exactly what he's doing when he accuses you of turning, lawful-owning lawful gun owners who want an arm stabilizing brace, he accused you of turning them into criminals and that's just not true.

 Part III

CHAKRABARTI: Director Dettelbach, let's switch gears a little bit. And talk more about things that are actually happening on the ground, and what you'd like to see continue, or evolve or change.

Because just before you took office, as you well know, the bipartisan Safer Communities Act passed. It's the first federal firearms legislation in 30 years, and it has some pretty interesting aspects to it. So first of all, two new federal charges added, making straw purchasing a federal crime and a new federal firearms trafficking as a crime.

So tell me a little bit about how you see things playing out on the ground as the act has had a year to take effect.

DETTELBACH: Lots of things in the bipartisan Safer Communities Act to talk about some of which don't have as much to do with ATF. Tremendous amount of funding to try and deal with both mental health issues, to try and help states to implement things like red flag laws, all sorts of really important things.

But the ones that ATF spends the most time on are the two you mentioned, which is Congress created two new federal statutes, that for the first time create standalone crimes for firearms trafficking and straw purchasing, which are both ways that guns get from legal commerce into illegal commerce, which is a key part of any strategy to reduce gun crime in the United States, has to try to prevent the diversion of firearms from lawful commerce to unlawful commerce. And those are two key ways it happens. We have been out there working with the U.S. attorneys and police across the country. We have brought over cases against over I think 100 defendants now, just on those new laws.

I think it's probably more, it gets more all the time. Because people are really aggressively trying to use those laws that Congress gave us. And there are things that range from a case in Florida back in March where we got 90 firearms that were being trafficked to a drug cartel member in Mexico and charged the bipartisan Safer Communities Act there, to a case in New Jersey involving Latin Kings gang where they were trafficking in guns, including ghost guns, illegally.

And we were able to charge the bipartisan Safer Communities Act statute in that case to, as I said, scores and scores more. So we also are out there educating our local law enforcement partners, our federal law enforcement partners, our state law enforcement partners on parts of that act so that people know what to investigate, how to do those cases.

I was recently down in South Carolina. I met with all the criminal chiefs from all the U.S. attorney's offices around the country, to talk about what we could do to make sure that we're implementing that law. So that's a daily thing that we do at ATF. And it's something that we are very thankful for.

Like I said, our roles, if we get something, a new ability from Congress, we are going to literally ring every last bit of public safety we can out of it. And that's what we're going to do with the bipartisan Safer Communities Act.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. And how much have DOJ prosecutions of people who violate these new federal laws, how much have they increased?

I guess they're new, so maybe they haven't increased at all, but go ahead. (LAUGHS)

DETTELBACH: It's new, right? No. It's a new, it's a new, it's a new statute. Those are 100 defendants who would not have been charged the way they were charged unless those statutes had been passed by Congress.

So it's all new charges trying to deal with this activity. Before, there was a lot of cases where prosecutors had to either not do the cases or do what I would call workarounds, right? Charge somebody with, who was really trafficking in firearms, with a paperwork offense. And the ability to actually charge those cases and hopefully get the kinds of sentence we need to deter this kind of crime, I think is something that is very important. So I'm very thankful for that. And that's our role. Can I go back though to something we talked about in the prior segment for a second?

Because I want to make sure that --

CHAKRABARTI: Please go ahead.

DETTELBACH: I want to make sure that you understand where I'm coming from on this. I am not saying that people shouldn't be speaking loudly and clearly with all the passion in the world on issues of what's going on in this country and what policies should be passed, and why we have the situation that we have.

And I'm not saying that people shouldn't have very passionate positions on new laws or old laws. I think that's really important. Really important work that people are doing. I'm saying that what I see my role is as the head of a law enforcement agency, is not necessarily the same as that role.

So I wouldn't want anybody to think that I'm saying, "Oh, they, you shouldn't be aggressively talking about people. You shouldn't be saying, 'this is the reason this isn't going.'" That's not at all the case. That's just not my job.

And I actually live in fear of a world where we somehow come to accept that this level of firearms violence is acceptable in this country, or sort of part of who we are as Americans. It is not part of our American story that 130 people die every single day because of firearms violence. It's not part of what our founders had in mind, that people can't sit out on their porch.

And feel safe. Nobody thought that we would have one room or two room or three-room schoolhouses when they founded this country, where duck and cover would be one of the most important subjects. Going to movies, going to country music concerts, going to church, feeling safe, walking around on the nice, first nice day of spring, whether it's a graduation party.

All of these things that we've now seen dragged into gun violence are wholly inconsistent with our American story, and I wouldn't want anybody to have the opinion that we at ATF think anything different. I and the entire core of ATF are totally committed to making sure people don't accept this.

We don't accept it, and they shouldn't either.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Your passion for not accepting this as the American story comes through loud and clear, Director Dettelbach. I do not doubt that at all, which is why I keep turning back to, over and over again, different ways of looking at this question of, Can ATF successfully achieve the mission that it has been tasked to do?"

And which as director, I am going to presume is one of your core responsibilities to help your agency fulfill that. I'll give you another example. Again, we're speaking in concrete terms, the regulations that ATF is able to form around firearms and accessories to firearms. There's been a couple of relatively recent ones, like a ban on bump stocks. Those rapid-fire devices that can be added to firearms.

They were used in the horrible Las Vegas mass shooting from several years ago, where more than 500 people got shot. I'm just going to say, my point is that ATF has instituted these regulations, but like instantly they get challenged both by members of Congress and in the courts. So does that make it even more challenging for ATF to even oversee the regulations it wishes to put into place?

DETTELBACH: So first of all, let me talk specifically just to mention that you're right. ATF has rulemaking authority that Congress gave it. So Congress gave ATF Rulemaking authority to implement the terms of several of the major firearm statutes that have been the law in this country for decades and decades.

Coming up on 100 years for one of them, the National Firearms Act of 1934, the Gun Control Act of 1968. Congress gave ATF rulemaking authority to implement those laws that are already on the books, and so when Congress passes a law in any administration, so whether it's the bump stock rule, which was a rule that was passed during the Trump administration after the Las Vegas massacre. Or whether it's a law that deals with short-barreled rifles using stabilizing braces to convert items to short barrel rifles, which have been regulated by the National Firearms Act since 1934.

Whether it's issuing a rule that deals with privately made firearms or ghost guns under the Gun Control Act so that people can't get around running background checks as Congress mandated under the Gun Control Act, by selling people a gun in a bag. And being in that business. Those are things that fit with the role of ATF, which is enforcing the laws that Congress has passed. And when people try to get around those laws, when people try to break them in clever ways that they think are somehow okay, it is the job of ATF to make sure that we're implementing those long-time congressionally passed provisions so that everybody's accountable to them.

And so people can bring challenges in court, people can express their views about them, but it's the law of the land. And the courts end up deciding what happens with respect to those kinds of cases. And ATF litigates those cases, as does the Department of Justice.

But the goal of those rules is to enforce the laws that Congress has passed to make sure we're protecting Americans from gun crime. That's the goal.

CHAKRABARTI: Right. As we round down to the last five minutes of the program here, Director Dettelbach, hope you let me go through just a couple of other quick questions here that I'd love to get your response on.

First of all, I want to talk a little bit about a partnership that ATF has with the National Shooting Sports Foundation. The NSSF, which is essentially the industry group for gun makers. ATF has a program called "Don't Lie for the Other Guy." And it's a NSSF partnership that designs educational programs to assist firearms retailers in the detection and possible deterrence of straw purchases.

Those are, we mentioned them before, illegal purchases of firearms by one person for another. So it's a partnership between the gunmakers and ATF. Now, colleagues of ours, just last month, interviewed David Chipman and he was the Biden nominee for the head of ATF who had to be withdrawn before your name was put in.

Because he ran up against a severe obstacles from the gun lobby, and he basically said, he said to our colleagues, "These programs just give cover to the NSSF, which has become a much more powerful lobby for the gun industry than the NRA is today. It's an Orwellian world when you have the gun industry presenting themselves as this great partner, while at the same time profiting from gun violence and purposely undermining public safety." What's your response to that?

DETTELBACH: I respect the right of everybody, including Mr. Chipman, to debate and talk about all these provisions. That was another provision that was in the bipartisan Safer Communities Act funding that program. So it's a congressional piece of legislation now that provides funds for that program.

With respect to the program itself, this is a program where ATF works with the National Shooting Sports Foundation to educate, as you said, dealers about how to catch and turn in people who are engaging in illegal conduct. And I will tell you that it is not an uncommon occurrence at ATF that ATF agents will get a call or a tip from a gun dealer about somebody who is going to break the law and help ATF to catch that person.

The notion that you shouldn't work with certain people when you have things that you can do to protect people and make cases, I understand that people have honest disagreement about that. But to me, I said when I got confirmed, and I continue to believe, I will work with anybody who will help to catch criminals and make Americans safer.

And that doesn't mean I agree with people about everything that they do. I have very strong views on this, but my job as ATF director is to, if somebody comes to me and says, "We will work with you to try to catch bad people." I've been a prosecutor for many years.

You work with people to catch bad people and protect Americans. That's what we will continue to do.

CHAKRABARTI: But I guess the question is, let me just jump in here. Cause I guess the question is maybe people ought to be more cautious about who they're willing to get into bed with, let me put it that way. Because look, the National Shooting Sports Foundation spent twice as much money as the NRA did in lobbying in 2020. They've lobbied against background checks, making background checks standards. They've been lobbying against the making the AR-15 minimum ownership age to 21.

They're based in Newtown, Connecticut, and actually fought lawsuits brought by the grieving parents of the Sandy Hook murders, against gun makers. They lobbied against the very bipartisan Safer Communities Act, you just mentioned. They lobbied against you and your appointment to ATF, and in fact, the relationship between the gun industry and ATF is something so curious that the Giffords Law Center says that ATF is exhibiting the symptoms of an agency captured by the very industry it's supposed to regulate.

We've got about a minute left here. What do you think about that?

DETTELBACH: I meet with people from all different parts of this country. I meet with people from Giffords. I meet with people from Brady. I meet with people from Everytown, I meet with people from the NSF. I work for the American people. That's what, when you get into government, you're not the same as somebody who is in an advocacy group.

I respect all the different people, and I don't agree with everybody about everything. And as you said, people I work with may agree with the government, may agree with ATF on some things, may disagree with others. That's our right. But there's not a world where, you know, you cut people off who want to help you because you disagree with them.

As you said, people have unkind things to say about me. That's their right. I would appreciate it if they didn't talk about the men and women of ATF who are risking their lives to protect them every single day. They should know that there's a group of 5,000 people out there who are running toward the gunfire to protect them, risking their lives every day. That is the women of ATF. And I'm here to make sure people know what they're really doing.

This program aired on July 11, 2023.


Paige Sutherland Producer, On Point
Paige Sutherland is a producer for On Point.


Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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