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ATF Director Steve Dettelbach talks about enforcing gun laws amid surge in mass shootings

ABC News

(WASHINGTON) — Mass shootings have hit a record pace so far this year, with 49 in January alone, according to the Gun Violence Archive.


Over the weekend, three women were fatally shot, and four others were injured near Beverly Hills. It was the sixth mass shooting in California alone, following tragedies in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay.

With an estimated 393 million guns, there are more firearms than people in the U.S, and the problem is continuing to get worse. Steve Dettelbach, director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, spoke with ABC News’ Linsey Davis about the surge in mass shootings and how his agency plans to combat gun violence in America.

DAVIS: Director, welcome to the show. I’d like to start with a fundamental question: What needs to happen in order to slow the scourge of gun violence in this country?

DETTELBACH: Well, thanks for having me. And the short answer is — a lot. I mean, as your introduction correctly points out, the amount and nature of firearms violence that we’re seeing now in this country is wholly unacceptable. I think one of the most important things we can start with is calling that out. One of my biggest fears is that people will somehow come to accept or be callous to the idea that this level of firearm violence is somehow just something that’s part of being in our country, part of being an American.

It is not. It is wholly unacceptable. Bluntly, it’s un-American. It’s not part of our story. It’s not who we are as a people. We at ATF don’t accept that. I think the men and women of law enforcement don’t accept it. You don’t accept it, and the American people shouldn’t accept it. That’s the first thing. But there’s a lot more to do beyond that to try and work shoulder to shoulder with state and local law enforcement, which we do at ATF, to see what we can do to both catch dangerous people who have committed gun crime and also do what we can do to stop them from killing again, to try and get ahead of this problem a little bit better.

DAVIS: What is the overarching issue? Is it just that we have too many guns already? Because when you look at other countries, they just don’t have this problem. And so, what are they doing better or we’re not doing enough of?

DETTELBACH: Look, it’s obviously a discussion that is happening all over the country. The president has talked a lot about it. The attorney general has talked a lot about it and others have opinions. But at ATF, our job is to take the rules and laws that Congress has passed, the tools that we have, and to do everything in our power to enforce them, to protect the community. Look, everything we do at ATF begins and ends with public safety. And so, there’s a lot that has gone on and there’s a lot more that needs to happen.

So, for instance, in August, in order to make sure we’re implementing the Gun Control Act, a law that’s been on the books for many, many years, we passed a rule that said that privately made firearms or ghost guns, which are unserialized, untraceable firearms, but they shoot and they can kill if they’re misused, just like other guns, are subject to the same provisions as traditional firearms under the Gun Control Act.

And ATF is going to do everything we can to make sure we’re enforcing the laws on the books by getting ahead of people who are misusing technology. There’s a lot going on, but there’s a lot more that needs to happen, because this threat is increasing.

DAVIS: You suggested that you would like to have more people in uniform for the ATF. What would you need to do in order to make that happen?

DETTELBACH: Well, that’s up to others, right? The president submitted a budget that called for ATF growth last year, and we’re gratified that we were able to get some additional money to do some additional hiring. We’re going to do the best with whatever the policymakers give us, and we’re going to take every single dollar and every single uniform and badge and firearm on the street that we have. We’re going to use our other intelligence and we’re going to just keep moving forward. Look, you know, we live in the world at ATF of the pounding, relentless threat of violent crime in our community.

DAVIS: Is this something that you feel that the president should discuss or at least broach during the State of the Union address next week?

DETTELBACH: I think the president has discussed the problem of gun violence in this country repeatedly. The attorney general has discussed it repeatedly. And I think we all should be conscious of discussing it repeatedly. Look, this last week, as you pointed out, I mean, there are weeks and there are weeks. This was a week where this was in the public eye more than normal.

But I have to tell you something. At ATF, it’s not just the cases that get on the news. It’s not just the cases that even get on the little crawl that goes below the news. It’s the 109 people every single day in this country who die from firearms violence that we’re focused on. Whether or not the case gets on the news, ATF is out there working not just mass shootings, but gang violence, cases involving firearms trafficking, people who are straw purchasing, who are breaking the law to get firearms to dangerous folks.

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