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Cleveland native Steve Dettelbach becomes head of ATF, 1st confirmed chief in 7 years

The Senate confirmed Dettlebach's nomination Tuesday by a vote of 48-46, with both of Ohio's senators voting in favor.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate on Tuesday confirmed Steve Dettelbach, a Cleveland native and former federal prosecutor, to run the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, making him the agency's first confirmed director since 2015.

Dettelbach takes the reins of the agency as the Biden administration and the Justice Department are fighting to combat a surge in violent crime, gun violence and mass shootings that has touched both big cities and small rural communities across the nation.

Dettelbach was confirmed by the Senate in a 48-46 vote. He's racked up endorsements from law enforcement officials, former Justice Department officials who worked for both Republican and Democratic administrations and victims of violence. Two Republican lawmakers, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Rob Portman of Ohio, voted to confirm Dettelbach.

"There is no better person for the role than Steve Dettelbach — a son of Ohio, a career public servant, with the experience and the record to combat violent crime and keep Americans safe," Ohio's Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown said on the Senate Floor before the vote. "I can think of no better way to support law enforcement, to reject hate, and to keep Americans safe from violent crime, than for the Senate to confirm Steve Dettelbach as ATF Director."

Credit: Carolyn Kaster/AP
FILE - President Joe Biden's nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Steve Dettelbach speaks during an event in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on April 11, 2022. The U.S. Senate on Tuesday, July 12, 2022, confirmed Steve Dettelbach, a former federal prosecutor, to run the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, making him the agency’s first confirmed director since 2015.

President Joe Biden released the following statement once Dettelbach's confirmation was made official:

"As I've made clear time and time again, the answer to the rise in crime my administration inherited is not to defund law enforcement; it's to provide law enforcement with the resources and support they need to succeed in working effectively with the communities they serve. 

"The Senate just took an important, bipartisan step by confirming Steve Dettelbach, an extraordinarily qualified and decorated career prosecutor with strong support across the law enforcement community, to be the first permanent head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in over 7 years.

"Steve's distinguished prosecutorial experience spans over two decades at the Department of Justice under four different administrations, two Republican and two Democratic. His work and reputation have earned him the support of former ATF directors who've led the department over the last 40 years, in addition to a wide range of law enforcement organizations and leaders, including police chiefs and sheriffs across the country. He was also endorsed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

"Following the passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, today's vote is another important sign that both parties can come together to support law enforcement and stand up against the horrific scourge of gun violence. I thank the Senate for their support. And it is my hope that we can continue working together to keep Americans safe – especially our children – from mass shootings like those in Uvalde, Buffalo, and Highland Park, as well as the daily acts of gun violence that don't make national headlines. 

"We have so much more to do. I will continue to call on Congress to build on this momentum and ban assault weapons, expand background checks, and pass safe storage laws. At the same time, my Administration will build on our record of taking historic executive action. And as ATF Director, Steve will play a leading role in ensuring robust implementation of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act and driving forward other executive actions to fight crime and save lives."

Dettelbach, a graduate of Hawken School in Gates Mills, is a former federal prosecutor who served as U.S. attorney in Ohio from 2009 to 2016 and has run in the past for attorney general of Ohio. He worked in several other positions in the Justice Department and was involved in the prosecution of a man who firebombed an Ohio courthouse. He also served as the chairman of the civil rights subcommittee as part of the attorney general's advisory committee under former attorneys general Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch.

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.

Both Republican and Democratic administrations had long 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. Jones made it through the Senate in 2013 but only after a six-month struggle. Jones was acting director when President Barack Obama nominated him in January 2013 and left the role in 2015.

Earlier this year, the Biden administration removed the agency's acting director, Marvin Richardson, from his position and replaced him with the U.S. attorney in Arizona, Gary Restaino. Restaino has juggled both jobs as Dettelbach's nomination waded its way through the Senate. Richardson has been the agency's deputy director.

Dettelbach's confirmation was immediately hailed by advocates who highlighted his experience as a prosecutor and his work with law enforcement.

"Steve Dettelbach's bipartisan confirmation vote is a watershed victory for the gun safety movement and further proof that the Senate logjam around this life-or-death issue is finally breaking," said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety.

His nomination had been staunchly opposed by gun rights groups, including Gun Owners of America, which wrote a letter Tuesday to Senate leaders urging them to vote against him.

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