Biden ATF nominee says he called for assault weapons ban without defining what that means

Steve Dettelbach supported an assault weapons ban during a 2018 bid for Ohio attorney general

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President Biden’s pick to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Steve Dettelbach, acknowledged Wednesday he does not have a definition for the term "assault weapon," even though he called for a ban on them when he ran for Ohio attorney general in 2018.

During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Dettelbach faced a grilling by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who called him out for how he supported an assault weapons ban during his campaign, despite not knowing what that would mean.

"When I was a candidate for office, I did talk about restrictions on assault weapons. I did not define the term. And I haven't gone through the process of defining that term," Dettelbach acknowledged.

President Biden's pick to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Steven Dettelbach, testified Wednesday, May 25, 2022, before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

President Biden's pick to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Steven Dettelbach, testified Wednesday, May 25, 2022, before the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Pool Video)

"So you're running for public office, and you called for a ban on assault weapons, but you don't have a definition for assault weapons?" Cotton asked.

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Dettelbach explained that deciding which weapons fall under the category of "assault weapons" is the job of lawmakers. He recognized it "would be a difficult task" to define what assault weapons are, because making it too limited in scope would not "offer the protections that are intended," while making it too broad "infringes unnecessarily on the rights of citizens."

Steve Dettelbach, nominee for director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., April 11, 2022. 

Steve Dettelbach, nominee for director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., April 11, 2022.  (Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

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Cotton argued that "assault weapons" is a made-up term used by "politicians and lawyers in Washington." He noted that guns have classifications such as pistol, rifle and shotgun and that each have defined characteristics, but assault weapons do not. 

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., questions President Biden's pick to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Steven Dettelbach, Wednesday, May 25, 2022, during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., questions President Biden's pick to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Steven Dettelbach, Wednesday, May 25, 2022, during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. (Pool Video)

"I think it's very telling that you're nominated to lead the ATF and you don't have a definition of assault weapon. And point is that there is really no such thing as a category of weapons known as assault weapons," the senator said.

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Cotton recalled that Congress did define assault weapons with a 1994 ban, but Dettelbach admitted that he is "not particularly familiar with" it.