Biden moves forward on gun violence

After much talk and little action on guns, President Joe Biden finally took a few small steps forward this week. Actually getting a handle on the country’s epidemic of gun violence will require Congress to do its job.

On Monday, Biden nominated Steve Dettelbach, a former federal prosecutor, to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF. He also laid out a new initiative to combat “ghost guns,” or homemade firearms that lack serial numbers. It’s about time on both counts.


The ATF has been leaderless for the entirety of Biden’s term. (In fact, it hasn’t had a confirmed director since 2015.) The president’s previous pick was well qualified but so strident in his criticism of the gun lobby that even some moderate Democrats raised objections, leading Biden to pull the nomination in September. Hopefully the administration is right that Dettelbach, who has a long record of public service, will be a “noncontroversial appointment.” Quickly confirming him is the least Congress could do.

He’ll have his work cut out for him. The ATF, a part of the Justice Department, has been dysfunctional for years, thanks to an aggressive gun lobby and Republican lawmakers who are hostile to any serious regulations. Its staffing level has stayed roughly the same for two decades, even as gun sales — and gun murders — have soared. Because Congress has prevented the bureau from creating a searchable online database to trace weapons, agents must sort through decades of paper records held in boxes stacked to the ceiling.

A new director would ideally be an important public voice for modernizing the agency. Biden’s annual budget request included a 13% increase for the ATF, which would be enough to hire 300 more staffers. That’d be a good start, but only if Congress follows through on the funding. As things stand, murders have reached a 25-year high while the percentage of homicides solved has been plummeting. If Dettelbach is confirmed, he may simply need to do more with less — which will demand real leadership.

Unfortunately, ghost guns will only complicate his task. Often sold in kits over the internet and assembled at home, they’re essentially untraceable. Although they’re used in a small percentage of total gun crimes, the trend is worrisome: Nationwide, law enforcement reported some 24,000 ghost guns at crime scenes from 2016 to 2020. One such weapon is thought to have been used in a recent shooting in the Bronx that left one teenager dead and two others wounded.

The administration’s new rule will modernize the definition of a firearm to include critical components of ghost guns. It will also require that the some weapons have serial numbers and demand that commercial manufacturers obtain federal licenses. Such reforms are overdue but Dettelbach must be prepared to defend them vigorously: The gun lobby has already vowed to fight the rule in court.

Of course, if Congress were serious about addressing gun crimes, it would go much further. It would require completed background checks for all gun purchases with no excuses or loopholes. It would strengthen oversight of gun dealers. It would crack down on gun traffickers and straw purchases and prohibit assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. In lieu of such legislation, there’s only so much any administration can do.

An ATF director’s job is never easy. Here’s hoping Dettelbach has what it takes.

— Bloomberg Opinion

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