A Gun-Control Activist Should Not Run the ATF

posted on June 21, 2022
David Chipman
Illustration: Gary Locke

Sometimes, I wonder whether President Joe Biden (D) actually wants to hire a director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Sure, Biden says he does, but his behavior suggests otherwise. Last year, Biden watched his first pick for the office, gun-control activist David Chipman, go down in flames. This year, he’s nominated another candidate in the same vein, former U.S. Attorney Steve Dettelbach. There is little reason to believe that Dettelbach will fare better than Chipman, so, I’ll ask again: Does President Biden actually want to fill this role?

If he did want to, it presumably wouldn’t be too difficult. Democrats have 50 votes in the U.S. Senate, and there are probably enough Republican moderates to shepherd through a mainstream candidate. But Dettelbach isn’t a mainstream candidate. He’s a garden-variety gun-control advocate. The Senate’s response to this nomination should be the same as its response to the last one: “No.”

Introducing Dettelbach as his nominee, President Biden said of the ATF that “the mission of this agency isn’t controversial, it’s public safety.” But that’s not quite right. The mission of the ATF is to follow the law as Congress has written it, and to do nothing else besides. The ATF does not have a freestanding mandate to pursue “public safety” in whatever way that its director, or the president, might wish. It has a narrow mandate to faithfully execute the law. 

In an ideal world, the personal political views of unelected executive-branch officials would not matter a great deal. But we do not live in an ideal world; we live in a world in which the executive branch routinely attempts to claim powers that it has not been given, and in which cynical lawyers spend their days searching for loopholes that they can use to get their own way. As a result, it matters a great deal that Steve Dettelbach wants to prohibit the most-commonly owned rifles in the United States; it matters a great deal that Steve Dettelbach wants to use the federal government to superintend all private firearms transfers—including between family members; and, yes, it matters a great deal that Steve Dettelbach wants to institute a set of “red-flag” regulations that make a mockery of the U.S. Constitution’s due-process protections, as well as of the Second Amendment. There are 330 million people in this country. It should not be too difficult to find one whose ideological bearings are aligned with the law.

Since he took office, Biden has given the American public no indication that he can be trusted with executive power. On the contrary, having been egged on by the most-extreme voices on his own side, President Biden has repeatedly taken actions that he knew were illegal and backed down only when forced to by the courts. The pattern has become depressingly familiar. First, Biden’s party demands a particular course of action. Next, Biden says that he can’t take that action because there is no congressional law that allows him to do so. And, finally, Biden announces that he’s going to do it anyway. There is no reason to think that this pattern will not at some point apply to the Second Amendment, and, as such, there is no reason for the Senate to confirm anyone to the ATF whose views are out of line with its own. 

President Biden says that the ATF is an important agency, and that it needs a permanent chief if it is to do its job properly. If he believes that, he’ll nominate someone acceptable for the role. Until he does, the seat must stay vacant.


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