ATF Director Uses Data to Target Guns in Crimes

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Steven Dettelbach ’88 discusses curbing gun violence during Dartmouth visit.

Steven Dettelbach '88
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Director Steven Dettelbach ’88 addresses the audience at his Rockefeller Center talk on Wednesday. Vice President of Government and Community Relations Emma Wolfe moderated the forum. (Photo by Rob Strong ’04)

When it comes to the issue of gun violence in the U.S., the statistics seem overwhelming and the solutions intractable. In 2022, there were more than 48,000 firearm-related deaths in the U.S., or approximately 132 people daily, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Additionally, guns were the leading cause of death of children in this country—greater than automobile accidents and cancer, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported. 

But these are not insurmountable crises, though change will come incrementally, Steven Dettelbach ’88, the director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said in an address and Q&A in Filene Auditorium on Wednesday. 

“This is trench warfare for public safety, inch by inch. That’s the only way I think we’re going to make progress,” Dettelbach said. 

The event, which was livestreamed, was sponsored by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences and moderated by Emma Wolfe, the vice president of government and community relations at Dartmouth. 

ATF is charged with protecting Americans from explosives, arson, and most notably, firearms violence. “If it booms, burns, or bangs, ATF owns it,” said Dettelbach, the former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio. But with only about 5,200 staff for the entire country (compare that, he noted, to the New York Police Department, with a workforce of about 36,000), Dettelbach called ATF’s mission huge but its resources scarce. 

Dettelbach’s visit to New England comes, he said, “on the heels of yet more senseless violence and tragedy in this country,” citing the shooting spree at the recent parade for the Super Bowl-winning Kansas City Chiefs, which killed one and injured scores, and an incident of domestic violence in Minnesota this week that ended in the fatal shootings of two police officers and a paramedic. After his talk at Dartmouth, Dettelbach said he was headed to Lewiston, Maine, which in October was the site of a mass shooting that killed 18 people and injured 13. 

Dettelbach recalled when the shootings in 1999 at Columbine High School in Colorado and Virginia Tech in 2007 seemed like dreadful but relatively rare explosions of mass gun violence. “I’m scared that we’re now headed to a place where, with all these mass shootings, we just call it Wednesday.”

Because of technical innovation that gives individuals the tools to make their own weapons—privately made firearms, or PMFs, also known as “ghost guns”— automatic machine guns, which have been regulated by Congress since the 1930s and were banned for sale to ordinary citizens in 1986, “have come pounding back to American streets like jackhammers,” Dettelbach said. 

ATF Director Steven Dettelbach and Dartmouth Political Union
ATF Director Steven Dettelbach ’88 speaks with, from left, Dartmouth Political Union members Samantha Bevins ’25, Alexander Barrow ’27, Margaret de la Fuente ’27, and Roger Friedlander ’27, after his talk. (Photo by Rob Strong ’04)

Compounding the problem, from 2017 to 2021, one million firearms were reported stolen from individuals, Dettelbach added. (There are 415 million firearms in a population of nearly 332 million). The number of actual stolen weapons is likely to be much higher, given that not everyone reports a theft. These stolen firearms are used in episodes of often fatal gun violence. 

Despite the grim data, there are glimmers of good news, Dettelbach said. Violent crime was down in many American cities in 2023: by about 11% in New York City, 12% in Chicago, 15% in Los Angeles and 19% in Baltimore. 

“This is progress—even if it is not enough progress and even if doesn’t feel like progress,” Dettelbach said. To reduce violent gun crime in the U.S., any strategy has to both identify the people who pull the triggers and cut off the “seemingly easy and endless flow of guns to these same people,” he said.

To achieve those aims, law enforcement relies more than ever on partnerships between local police, ATF, prosecutors, and other federal agencies, forming Crime Gun Intelligence Centers to solve crimes of gun violence.

“That collaboration means more than just bodies: it means more ideas, more capabilities, more expertise. CGI want to squeeze every last bit of evidence out of a crime gun,” Dettelbach said. This approach is now deemed preferable to flooding high crime areas with police, which can have “collateral damage” in neighborhoods with long-standing distrust and fear of the police. 

“We will drive down violent crime in this country by focusing on the bad guys,” Dettelbach said.

But there are larger societal and cultural issues at play that have hindered efforts to reduce gun violence. “When it comes to gun crime, the temperature is way, way too high on both sides. There’s so much mistrust that we can’t even get easy things done on which we already have broad consensus, like universal background checks.”

Misperceptions abound. Law-abiding gun owners do not support or endorse widespread gun violence; on the other hand, rallying cries that citizens’ Second Amendment rights are in danger are not true, he asserted. “These rights have never been more secure at any time in this country,” Dettelbach said.

Despite the scale of the challenges, Dettelbach said he sees room for optimism. “I believe in data. Data show that violent crime is dropping. There is a strategy that can work, there is a path forward.” 

To make progress, Americans have to be “ready to discuss, listen, compromise and, yes, even sacrifice for the greater good.”

That is the least we owe to the citizens, in particular the children, of this country, he added.

Several audience members asked Dettelbach about the problem of mass shooters who steal weapons that were lawfully obtained by family members or friends. 

“I understand the problems with bad guys, but thousands of suicides, and children’s and domestic deaths are caused by law-abiding citizens. How do we address that?” asked Randy Ringer, a Lyme resident. “I’m just frustrated, like the rest of us.”

Senior class president Kami Arabian ’24, who introduced the event, said Dettelbach’s remarks addressed a wide range of concerns in a bipartisan manner. “I felt the director’s comments went far in bridging the gap on a political issue that shouldn’t be a political issue,” he said.

Also on Wednesday, Dettelbach spoke to students in the Introduction to Public Policy class, had lunch with physicians and faculty from the Geisel School of Medicine and Dartmouth Health, met with police and other law enforcement officers from Hanover, Manchester, N.H., the University of New Hampshire, and Dartmouth’s Safety and Security staff and with U.S. attorneys from New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island. 

He ended his day at Dartmouth dining with students from the Tucker Center, who take part in interfaith dinner conversations.


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Nicola Smith