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New ATF director speaks on his plans for the agency

Oliver Contreras – Pool/Getty Images, FILE

(WASHINGTON) — The Senate confirmed Steven Dettelbach as director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives earlier this month, making him only the second ATF director to win Senate approval since confirmation was required in 2006.

Dettelbach, who is a former federal prosecutor and U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, was sworn in July 19 to run ATF, the law enforcement agency in charge of enforcing the nation’s gun and explosives laws.

He sat down with “GMA3” to discuss his plans for the agency, the powers the agency has at its disposal and his thoughts on the country’s gun violence epidemic.

GMA3: Sir, thank you for being here. First time in seven years. They’ve had acting directors, but not a permanent director. Has that impacted the agency and its work in some way by not having a permanent person in place?

DETTELBACH: Well, first of all, thanks for having me. And look, there are incredible people out there all across the country, ATF folks who have been working really hard to try and combat violent crime, gun crime for all these years. And I think from my standpoint, as you say that the first Senate-confirmed director in seven years, I feel a lot of obligation. To do it is to stand up and fight for those folks.

They’re doing a great job and I am there to support and try and make sure that our state and local partners have what they need. Because you said it right, there is a big problem out there. Mass shootings are a big problem. But in addition, there’s that constant drumbeat of tragedy that goes on because of violent crime and gun violence.

GMA3: And you mentioned it because, again, the very high profile awful tragedies in these mass shootings we’ve been seeing, oftentimes we hear the ATF has helped track down the weapons or doing something with shell casings, you know, that type of forensic work. But what are you doing? Help people understand what the ATF does to prevent gun violence in this country. Maybe there’s not mass shootings, but the everyday gun violence.

DETTELBACH: Yeah, absolutely. So you’re right, there’s different parts of this and there’s some things that are newer that the public doesn’t know about; then there’s the tried-and-true things that are really important, start with that.

So I’m in New York today to sit down and meet with New York law enforcement because they are some of the leaders in the country in terms of being smart about combating gun violence and having task forces to make sure that we’re working together. The days of “this is my turf, that’s your turf” are over in law enforcement. We work together.

So that task force, that’s the new thing that you talked about, is what we call crime gun intelligence. And that can be used both to try and catch shooters and take them off the street and also to catch them before they kill again. So, as you said, to prevent.

So one of the things that we do is do what’s called a trace and that’s available free to every law enforcement. That’s like getting the birth certificate of a firearm where it started. Then I think you pointed out this thing is called NIBIN but it really is the part that comes out the back of the firearm, the injected cartridge casing. There’s now science that allows us to find out because bad guys don’t usually pick that up, right?

What we find, we can now connect that shooting to maybe some shooting that happened last week or the week before. And that really is a hot lead for law enforcement to go out and get that person before they act again.

GMA3: How do we– because so much of the gun violence we see and again, the high-profile cases are one thing, but then we see what happens in places like Chicago, here in New York [there] was a violent weekend and so many people got shot– how do you prevent that gun violence? How do you get those guns off the streets? Because that’s the violence that doesn’t always make the headlines.

DETTELBACH: Yeah, my background before I did this job, for 20 years I was a federal prosecutor and then I was a U.S. attorney. And so I will tell you that law enforcement alone cannot do this. It has to be a wholesome approach. I always compare it to a three-legged stool. You have to have great enforcement, right? Because people need to know there are dangerous people in this community that need to be caught and they need to be, we need to be protected from.

You also have to work with the entire community to do prevention work. That means giving families and kids options before they get inculcated into this violent culture that we have out there. And then the third part is reentry. So it’s the No. 1 predictor in many cases of whether you’re going to do something violent and be a criminal is whether you have done it before. We need to do a better job of making sure people aren’t recidivists. Those three things, it’s a three-legged stool because if you don’t do any one right, the stool falls.

GMA3: Director, how are you doing? Because all that sounds really hefty, it sounds like a big project. How do you do that with such– you’re the smallest division of the Justice Department, 2,500 agents. I believe D.C. has more police officers, I think by a thousand, than you do agents. You’re supposed to be doing this all over the country. Why do you have so few?

DETTELBACH: Well, look, if you ask any police chief or executive in the country, they could use [more]. And the president, by the way, has proposed a significant increase to ATF’s budget for this year. But as you said, my job, I’m in law enforcement, is to do the best with what we have now. And the way we do that is partnership, it’s with working with state and local law enforcement to be a force multiplier.

Back when I started this business as a prosecutor, you know, 30 years ago, there were eight different agencies doing the same thing in their own little task forces, in their own little units. We cannot do that anymore. We have to share intelligence and share bodies in real-time ways.

And that stuff is happening in New York. That’s why I mean, what’s happening right here in New York is actually in many ways a national model. And not everybody can do what they do in New York because crime looks different in different places. But they are doing stuff with task forces, they are doing stuff with crime gun intelligence, and we are their full partners in doing that and we have to support that.

GMA3: Let’s get your take on one last thing here, because we see the mass shootings and we often see that the shooter did buy a firearm legally, but for the most part, the violence we’re seeing day in, day out, on streets, is the problem illegally possessed guns more so than legally bought guns? How big is that issue?

DETTELBACH: It’s a huge issue. There are people that have firearms that the law clearly says, and I think almost everybody agrees, should not have firearms. So those are people who are, let’s say, convicted murderers, rapists, you know, felons, other groups of people who are laid out in law. And they are able to get firearms far too easily, and they’re using them to hurt people. A lot of people.

Not in cases that make the national news, just like you said, T.J., but in everyday tragedies that are playing out in this country and God bless the police and and federal agents who are working together to work on this because it is a 24-hour a day, seven-day a week problem, and it can get very, very hard on them and dangerous for them. So one thing I want to say is, you know, we owe them a lot.

GMA3: And we get it. From your perspective, you’re not the policy guy, you’re the enforcement guy. But our problem is not legal gun owners in this country. Would you say it’s not legally purchased guns?

DETTELBACH: Look, I am not the policy guy. I am the enforcement guy. Congress just came together in a bipartisan way to give us more tools to try and deal with this problem. I’ll use whatever– that debate is important, but my job is to take what comes out of Congress, the laws on the books, and make sure we’re doing everything we can to protect people.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

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