New ATF Director Steve Dettelbach on gun violence in America

For the first time in seven years, the federal government has a Senate-confirmed director in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the agency better known as ATF. Steven Dettelbach was recently sworn in as its leader and takes over at a time when gun violence in America is on the rise. He joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For the first time in seven years, the federal government has a Senate-confirmed director in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the agency better known as ATF.

    Steven Dettelbach was sworn in yesterday as its leader. And he takes over at a time when gun violence in America is on the rise.

    I spoke with him moments ago.

    Steve Dettelbach, thank you very much for joining us. We appreciate it.

    We have just shown our audience the reminder of what happened in Aurora 10 years ago, what kind of pain still exists in that community. and, today, we — here we are, all these years later. We are still seeing way too many mass shootings, not to mention gun violence off the charts in this country.

    Remind us, what is the role of the ATF, and what do you see as your main priority?

  • Steve Dettelbach, ATF Director:

    ATF's mission is pretty simple.

    It's to protect the American public from firearms violence and violent crime. And that means the horrible things that you talked about in Aurora, the things we have seen in Uvalde and Buffalo and Tree of Life in Pittsburgh and Highland Park, but it also means, as you said, the tragedies that happen to hundreds of families every week.

    Every day, more than 100 families lose somebody in this country because of firearms violence. And working with our state and local law enforcement partners, the mission of ATF is to try and push back on that, to catch the people who are out there hurting people, and to make our country safer.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is there — I hear you saying you want to catch them.

    But, in the meantime, is there anything ATF can do, that you want to do to reduce the number of guns in this country? What is it, 120 guns for every 100 Americans?

  • Steve Dettelbach:

    Well, the role of ATF is to enforce the laws as we get them from Congress. And we're dedicated to doing that at ATF. And ATF has done that for a long time.

    We work together with state and local law enforcement to do that. And that means also making sure that we have an effective, a fair and a consistent regulatory scheme, so that people who are following the law, law-abiding people, that they're OK, and then the people who are breaking the law, who are breaking the rules are held accountable.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I hear you say that, Mr. Dettelbach.

    At the same time, we all know there's something — there are laws on the books right now, but something isn't working because of these statistics. Are there law changes, new laws that you would be willing to put yourself, put the ATF behind to advocate for those changes?

  • Steve Dettelbach:

    So, let me be clear.

    Things are tough right now for law enforcement and for Americans in terms of the threats that we face. Violent crime — you're right, violent crime is on the rise. Mass shootings are on the rise. Domestic extremist violence is on the rise. And those are all threats that everyday Americans are facing.

    There are a lot of different proposals out there. And, just recently, in a bipartisan way, Congress has enacted some legislation. The ATF's primary role, as opposed to Congress', is to take the laws that have been passed and make sure we're doing everything we can to be fair and effective enforcers of the law.

    That's our role. That's what we have done. And that's what we will continue to do.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, for example, some have suggested what the ATF and others need to get behind is raising the age of those who are eligible to buy semiautomatic weapons.

    Is that something that you, as director, would support?

  • Steve Dettelbach:

    Well, President Biden has spoken about these kinds of issues, and Congress is going to consider the things that they consider and make those decisions.

    The ATF's role is to take what comes out of that debate, that discussion, that important discussion, and make sure that we're doing our best to enforce it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We spoke with a former longtime ATF agent who, among other things, told us, he said U.S. attorneys need to be more aggressive in enforcing the laws that are already on the books.

    He said state and federal prosecutors have chosen not to take many ATF cases in the past, which, in his view, has led to the fact that there just hasn't been an incentive for people to give up illegal guns.

  • Steve Dettelbach:

    You know, one of the things — I'm a former U.S. attorney and a career prosecutor myself for 20 years.

    And one of the things that's really exciting about what's going on now at the Department of Justice is, we have set up gun trafficking strike forces. I was meeting today with Attorney General Garland and the people who are running those strike forces.

    And those strike forces are led by the U.S. attorney's offices. And one of the things I heard in that meeting was that, with the attention that everybody is now paying to the issue of gun trafficking, that state and local prosecutors and U.S. attorney's offices are in many cases really leaning into this problem.

    So I think we need them as important partners in this. You're absolutely right. And I hope that most of them, I hope that all of them are going to be all in on this, just like ATF is.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Two other quick questions.

    One is, with, what is it, something like 2,400 ATF agents spread around the country — I'm told that's a number that hasn't changed in decades — at a budget of, what, $1.4 billion a year, which is less than the Chicago Police Department. We looked it up.

    Do you have the resources you need?

  • Steve Dettelbach:

    Look, there's not a law enforcement executive or a police chief in the United States who wouldn't tell you that they could use more agents and use more cops.

    We will do the best we can, we will do all we can with what we have. The ATF is a small agency. But we leverage our ability by those partnerships with state and local law enforcement. There's nobody better, nobody better in all of law enforcement at standing shoulder to shoulder and partnering with other federal agencies and other state agencies.

    That's part of the brand of the ATF, and it has to be, right, because you said yourself it's a small agency. There are not enough ATF agents to cover every crime in the United States. But we can work together with others.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Last question, Mr. Dettelbach, is, what do you — what would your message be today to those who've lost loved ones in this country to gun violence and who — and Americans who are afraid to go out in their community now?

  • Steve Dettelbach:

    I have met with a lot of people and families through my career who were victims and had family members who were victims of violent crime.

    And there's nothing that anybody can say that can in any way try to either understand or comfort those people. It's just horrible. And the fact that we have so many in our country every single day is a tragedy that we simply cannot accept. And that's what I would say to them.

    What I would say to them is that I and the men and women at ATF, along with our state and local law enforcement partners, do not accept or in any way try to minimize or brush aside the tragedies that are occurring every day in this country. And it's what keeps us working at night. It's what keeps us up at night.

    We will do everything we can to try and make sure that there aren't as many families who have to go through the same kind of tragedies as they are.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Steve Dettelbach, newly sworn-in director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, thank you. Thank you very much.

  • Steve Dettelbach:

    Thank you. Thanks.

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