Biden nominates a former federal prosecutor and former Ohio AG candidate to lead the ATF as it targets ‘ghost guns’

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WASHINGTON, D.C. (NPR) — President Biden has picked former federal attorney Steve Dettelbach to serve as director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as the administration takes new steps to address the scourge of gun violence in America.

Steve Dettelbach, candidate for Ohio Attorney General, speaks during a campaign rally, Monday, Nov. 5, 2018, in Columbus, Ohio.
President Biden has tapped Steve Dettelbach, a former U.S. attorney for the northern district of Ohio, to lead the ATF. Dettelbach is pictured in 2018, when he unsuccessfully ran for Ohio attorney general. [John Minchillo | AP]
The nomination comes as the Justice Department pursues regulations targeting so-called ghost guns, weapons that can often be assembled from parts and that lack traceable serial numbers. The rules would require background checks for anyone purchasing a kit that can be readily made into a working firearm, including 3-D printing kits — just like the background check law that applies to all licensed gun sales.

Kit makers and re-sellers would have to include a serial number on the weapon. The rule would not ban gun kits themselves or strengthen penalties for crimes committed with ghost guns.

Last year, about 20,000 suspected ghost guns were recovered by law enforcement during criminal investigations, according to the ATF, marking a ten-fold increase in reported ghost guns compared to 2016.

In announcing Dettelbach’s nomination, the White House touted his two-decade career as a prosecutor at the Department of Justice, as well as his record of taking on criminal gang activity, domestic extremism and his experience with data-driven strategies to fight community gun violence. Dettelbach served as U.S. attorney for the northern district of Ohio during the Obama administration before resigning in 2016.

As part of his unsuccessful run for Ohio attorney general in 2018, Dettelbach pushed to reinstate an assault weapons ban and universal background checks.

Senior administration officials pitched the Cleveland-based attorney as a “non-controversial” nominee with a strong law enforcement background. But polarized politics around guns have previously made the post impossible post to fill.

Unlike Republicans in the evenly divided Senate, Democrats lack unity on gun policy. The ATF, which plays a key role in gun regulations, hasn’t had a permanent director since 2015, and there has been only one since the agency became a Senate-confirmed position in 2006.

It’s President Biden’s second attempt at finding the ATF a permanent director. The White House in September withdrew David Chipman’s nomination to lead the agency amid opposition from gun rights advocates, Republican senators and a few Democrats. Chipman, a former ATF agent, has pushed for tough gun regulations as a senior policy advisor for a gun safety group founded by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords who was the victim of a shooting in 2011.

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