Bloomberg Law
Sept. 8, 2022, 1:28 AM

Biden’s ATF Chief Looks to Cut Illegal Gun Sales, Hate Crimes

Courtney Rozen
Courtney Rozen

The new chief of the nation’s top firearms regulator said he’ll partner with local law enforcement and use crime data to catch more illegal gun dealers in a bid to combat the country’s highest gun-murder rates in decades.

Steve Dettelbach, director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), said he’s particularly focused on reducing hate-fueled crime like the 2018 anti-Semitic attack at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

“We are not going to sit back and let this become somehow something that is normalized in our country,” Dettelbach said in an exclusive interview Wednesday with Bloomberg Government.

That sentiment echoed the president who nominated him. President Joe Biden promised during his campaign that he’d fight against extremism and plans a speech on the topic next week at a White House summit on countering hate-fueled violence.

A former US attorney in Ohio, Dettelbach in July became the first ATF leader confirmed by the Senate since 2013. He takes the helm of the 5,000-employee agency amid rising demand for solutions to gun deaths. The gun murder rate in 2021 reached its second-highest level in a quarter-century, exceeded only by 2020, according to preliminary federal records.

The ATF has had a hard time in recent years carrying out its mission to inspect gun dealers. Meanwhile, demand for firearms grew rapidly in the first two years of the Covid-19 pandemic. One indicator: The FBI performed a total of 78.6 million background checks for Americans to buy firearms in 2020 and 2021—the highest amount in a two-year period in at least 20 years.

Dettelbach said he intends to use data analysts stationed at ATF field offices nationwide to identify weapons dealers in areas that have a history of illegal possession or high crime. That information will help high-ranking investigators decide which inspections to prioritize regardless of their location, he said.

“The old sort of notion of the grumpy old desk sergeant that pounds his desk and says, ‘Work the east side or work the west side’ — that’s not where we are anymore,” Dettelbach said.

Biden in the spring asked Congress for a 13% increase in the bureau’s budget, in part to hire more investigators to keep an eye on firearm dealers.

Culture of ‘Caution’

Dettelbach also said the ATF will work with more than 200 teams of federal and local law enforcement officials, investigators, analysts, and linguists to track down extremists. He wants to create a culture of “caution” and not fear, adding that Americans must report suspicious behavior to local law enforcement.

It’s the same playbook that federal law enforcement has used for decades to find and catch international terrorists and drug cartels—with mixed results.

We don’t need to “reinvent the wheel” on stopping hate-fueled violence, he said. “And I don’t think we are.”

In more than two decades as a prosecutor, Dettelbach worked with the ATF to investigate attacks by domestic extremists. His office prosecuted an Oregon-based white supremacist for threatening an Ohio NAACP leader. His team also won a hate-crime conviction of an Indiana arsonist who set fire to a prayer rug inside a Toledo Islamic center.

After working as a prosecutor, Dettelbach was a partner in the Cleveland office of Baker & Hostetler. He also lost a run for Ohio attorney general in 2018.

At the ATF, Dettelbach, 56, said he will also focus on enforcing Biden’s new policy on so-called ghost guns, firearms that don’t have serial numbers and aren’t traceable. Dettelbach compared a gun’s serial number to a birth certificate, adding that the identifier allows law enforcement to track the gun’s owner after a shooting.

The agency last month began requiring people who buy ghost gun kits from dealers to pass a background check, a move Republican state leaders have so far largely failed to overturn.

“The rule is the law as we sit here today, and hopefully will be in the future, and we will ensure that people are following” it, Dettelbach said.

(Everytown for Gun Safety advocates for universal background checks and other gun control measures. Michael Bloomberg is the majority owner of Bloomberg Government’s parent company and serves as a member of Everytown’s advisory board.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Courtney Rozen in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bernie Kohn at; John Martin at; Angela Greiling Keane at