ATF Director can't say what an "assault weapon" is, but he still wants to ban them

(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Amazingly, this isn’t even the first time that ATF Director Steve Dettelbach has been asked the simple question and utterly whiffed on providing an answer. Last May, during Dettelbach’s confirmation hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas asked Dettelbach to define “assault weapon”, only for the then-nominee to draw a blank.

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“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.

“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.

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.”

Wasn’t Dettelbach trying to become a lawmaker when he first called for a ban on “assault weapons”? By his own argument, then, he should have been able to come up with a working definition on the campaign trail, and he definitely should have had an answer ready during his confirmation hearing. But I guess this is Dettelbach’s standard response, because he trotted it out once again during a House Appropriations hearing on Tuesday.

On Tuesday, Director Dettelbach was asked by Rep. Jake Ellzey (R-TX) to give a brief, 15-second definition of the term “assault weapon,” the thing President Biden and Democrats have demanded must be banned within the United States in order to reduce the frequency of crimes committed by individuals with guns. Dettelbach, however, came up completely empty during his testimony in the House Appropriations Committee’s hearing focused on the ATF’s FY2024 budget.

“I’ll go shorter than that because I, honestly, if Congress wishes to take that up, I think Congress would have to do the work, but we would be there to provide technical assistance,” Dettelbach told Ellzey. Huh? So, the man in charge of ATF doesn’t even have a guess when it comes to defining a firearm type that is mentioned and demonized almost daily by the White House?

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Dettelbach went on to tell Ellzey that “I, unlike you, am not a firearms expert, to the same extent as you maybe, but we have people at ATF who can talk about velocity of firearms, what damage different kinds of firearms cause, so that whatever determination you chose to make would be an informed one.”

We’re supposed to believe that the director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives has no earthly idea how to define “assault weapons”, despite the fact that his boss calls for them to be banned on a weekly basis and Democrats in states like Michigan, Colorado, and Washington are currently trying to prohibit their sale or possession? Gimme a break.

Dettelbach’s response wasn’t ignorant, it was political. The truth is that “assault weapon” has no real definition other than “gun someone wants to ban.” What’s considered an “assault weapon” in New York may not be an “assault weapon” in Ilinois, while California lawmakers have gone back and redefined “assault weapon” on multiple occasions since enacting its first ban back in 1989.

But Dettelbach can’t go on the record as admitting that, especially with Biden making his own vague and vacuous demands for an “assault weapons” ban any time a shooting generates national headlines (even when the killer used a handgun). Instead he tried to punt the issue back to Congress, but in doing so he implicitly acknowledged what he couldn’t say out loud; an “assault weapon” is whatever anti-gun lawmakers say it is, and whatever convoluted definition they do come up with will most certainly impact millions of law-abiding Americans and some of the most popular and commonly-owned firearms sold today.

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