WASHINGTON — White House officials knew the confirmation hearings for President Biden’s nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives would be a make-or-break moment for his stalled agenda on gun control.
Then, less than 24 hours before the nominee, Steven M. Dettelbach, was set to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, an 18-year-old man wielding a handgun, and possibly a rifle, killed at least 19 schoolchildren and two adults in Uvalde, Texas.
What that means for the confirmation process, at a time when mass shootings seem to emerge and recede quickly in the public consciousness, is uncertain.
But the massacre has raised the stakes at the hearing, and cast into even starker relief the differences between Mr. Dettelbach, a mainstream Democrat who supports his party’s call for the renewal of an assault weapons ban, and Republicans, who have portrayed him as a threat to Second Amendment rights.
“I think this is going to change the dynamics of the hearing — after Buffalo and Uvalde — though I’m not sure how,” said Peter Ambler, the executive director of the gun control group founded by former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, referring to the racist shooting more than a week ago in Buffalo that left 10 dead as well as to Tuesday’s shooting.
“Confirming a permanent A.T.F. director is the absolute least they can do, and they needed to have done it yesterday,” Mr. Ambler added.
If ever there was a sense of urgency around the confirmation of a nominee, it appeared to be materializing on Tuesday night, as congressional Democrats expressed a sense of raw anguish not seen in the Capitol since the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., more than nine years ago.
Guns in the U.S.
- In the Wake of Tragedy: After a gun attack in Buffalo, could the issue of gun safety turn into a rallying cry for Democrats in the midterms? Senator Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut hopes so.
- A Pandemic Spike: U.S. gun deaths reached the highest number ever recorded in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, as gun-related homicides rose by 35 percent.
- Upward Trend: New federal data shows that the United States is in the middle of a gun-buying boom, as the annual number of firearms manufactured continues to climb.
- Road Rage: In Texas, a pandemic surge in gun purchases and a population that is increasingly on edge have caused an explosion of shootings on the road.
“I am here on this floor to beg, to literally get down on my hands and knees to beg my colleagues: Find a path forward here,” said Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, kneeling on the Senate carpet in a plea to advance gun control measures.
The A.T.F. — the federal agency charged with enforcing the nation’s gun laws — is chronically underfunded and hamstrung by laws that limit its regulatory authority and ability to share information. Mr. Dettelbach would be its first director actually confirmed by the Senate in seven years.
Installing a new A.T.F. director is one of the few consequential moves Mr. Biden’s administration can still make. The major policy changes Mr. Biden espoused during the 2020 campaign — including his vow to impose universal background checks on gun buyers — have been blocked by Senate Republicans, working in tandem with the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun organizations.
A year ago, during an earlier wave of mass shootings, the White House tapped David Chipman, a pugnacious opponent of the gun lobby, to run the A.T.F. But administration officials, who were focused on pushing through Mr. Biden’s unsuccessful Build Back Better package, left Mr. Chipman on his own to respond to a fierce backlash. By September, they were forced to withdraw his nomination.
Mr. Biden’s aides then took months to select Mr. Dettelbach, 57, whose confirmation they see as a smoother prospect than that of the brash and confrontational Mr. Chipman: He is upbeat, avoids bombast, and has been guided by administration officials and a Senate sponsor, all anxious to prevent another defeat.
Seven former A.T.F. directors have endorsed him, as have dozens of law enforcement officials around the country, along with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the largest such organization in the country, and the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, the largest such organization representing federal agents, including A.T.F. employees.
Yet he still faces only the narrowest of paths to confirmation.
Republican opposition, even after Tuesday’s events, is likely to be unanimous, and a single Democratic defection will sink Mr. Dettelbach’s nomination. His performance at his confirmation hearing on Wednesday — in the shadow of the deadliest mass shooting of the year — is likely to determine his fate.
“I’ve been talking to a number of Democrats who say how favorably impressed they have been with him, how favorably toward him they feel, but they want to watch the hearings just to make sure,” said Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio and a friend of Mr. Dettelbach’s, who has been speaking with colleagues on his behalf.
“I’m pretty certain we’re going to confirm him,” he added.
Democrats felt nearly as sanguine about Mr. Chipman, a former A.T.F. agent who worked until recently for the Giffords group, after securing the backing of the chamber’s perpetual swing voter — Senator Joe Manchin, the conservative Democrat of West Virginia. Then, over the summer, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a gun manufacturers’ trade group, began quietly deploying its state-level affiliates to peel away Democratic support.
A group in Maine allied with the foundation pressured Senator Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, to vote against Mr. Chipman based on his promises to aggressively crack down on gun dealers, in a state where hunting remains hugely popular. It scuttled his nomination.
The trade group has not yet mounted a similar campaign against Mr. Dettelbach, or even taken a position on the nomination. But the group, which has resisted increased regulation or the release of data that could be used in product liability lawsuits against the industry, pushed for the nomination of A.T.F.’s current deputy director, a career official seen by the White House as too cozy with manufacturers.
“Does Mr. Dettelbach believe, like the president, that our industry is the enemy?” asked Larry Keane, a top official with National Shooting Sports Foundation, who led the campaign against Mr. Chipman.
Compared with Mr. Chipman, Mr. Dettelbach has made few policy pronouncements on guns. He focused less on political questions than enforcing existing laws, often in conjunction with A.T.F. agents, during his tenure as the United States attorney for the district that includes Cleveland, from 2009 to 2015.
There is one significant exception: Mr. Dettelbach supported the renewal of the federal assault weapons ban during an unsuccessful campaign for Ohio attorney general in 2018, and Republicans are likely to home in on those statements during the hearing.
“Can he define the so-called ‘assault weapons’ he wants to ban?” asked Mr. Keane, speaking several days before the mass shooting in Texas.
Most Democrats support such a ban, citing the outsize role semiautomatics have played in recent shootings. The 18-year-old white supremacist who killed 11 shoppers at a Buffalo supermarket over a week ago used a legal Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle he illegally retrofitted to take 30-round clips, and referred to his contempt for the Brady Bill in a racist screed he posted online before the attack.
But several Senate Democrats are against reinstating a ban. One of them is Senator Jon Tester of Montana, who opposed Mr. Biden’s modest executive actions, including a widely popular new regulation to crack down on the homemade firearms produced from kits known as “ghost guns.”
Mr. Dettelbach met with Mr. Tester earlier this month, and the senator walked away impressed with his credentials, and undecided about his own vote, a spokesperson said; Mr. Dettelbach’s conversations with Mr. King and Mr. Manchin have produced similar outcomes.
White House officials, interviewed before the events in Texas, were confident that they could win over the fence sitters in their own party; one gun lobbyist, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Mr. Dettelbach stood a far better chance of being confirmed than Mr. Chipman had because “the White House finally woke up and took A.T.F. seriously.”
Yet the National Rifle Association and other gun rights organizations were ramping up their efforts to cast Mr. Dettelbach as a threat to gun owners, and poring over the list of clients he worked for during his time as a criminal defense lawyer.
Mr. Dettelbach’s record as a federal prosecutor in Ohio seems to be helping his cause. His office prosecuted dozens of drug and gun cases, but he was especially focused on civil rights and antidiscrimination matters, securing a conviction in 2013 for a series of attacks against Amish people in Ohio.
“Steve was a good U.S. attorney, and he didn’t seem to be motivated by ideology, but the facts in each case,” said Bob Browning, the former special agent in charge of A.T.F.’s office in Columbus, who worked closely with Mr. Dettelbach.
“If there was a gun case he could pursue on the merits he would do that, but I’ve also seen him drop a case because he thought there wasn’t enough evidence,” Mr. Browning added.