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A pediatric surgical group endorses Biden's nominee for gun enforcement agency chief

U.S. President Joe Biden's nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Steve Dettelbach speaks during an event about gun violence in the Rose Garden of the White House April 11, 2022.
Drew Angerer
Getty Images
U.S. President Joe Biden's nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Steve Dettelbach speaks during an event about gun violence in the Rose Garden of the White House April 11, 2022.

The nation's largest organization of pediatric surgeons has endorsed President Biden's pick to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, saying it is "counterproductive" to leave ATF without a permanent director when the number of gun-related injuries and deaths is climbing among American children.

In a letter sent to Senate leaders and the top Democrat and Republican on the Judiciary Committee, the American Pediatric Surgical Association called on lawmakers to confirm Biden's ATF nominee, former U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach.

"The mission of the ATF is to protect the public from crimes involving firearms, which too often impact children," the pediatric organization says in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by NPR. "APSA surgeons speak to the importance of this mission from firsthand experience in the care of children who sustain firearm injuries."

The organization, which has more than 1,600 members, says it is "imperative" that ATF have a strong and effective director, and it argues that Dettelbach "is an individual who has the capability for such effective leadership."

Gun-related injuries are now the leading cause of death for American children and teenagers, the New England Journal of Medicine reported this month, with the rate of firearm-related deaths rising 29.5% from 2019 to 2020 for people 19 years old and younger.

Dettelbach served as the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio during the Obama administration. Prior to that, he held several positions at the Justice Department, including as an assistant U.S. attorney and also in the Civil Rights Division. After leaving the department, he ran for Ohio attorney general in 2018, but lost.

In its letter, APSA says Dettelbach's experience "demonstrates that he can establish direction, alignment, and commitment to serve the mission of the ATF."

At the same time, the group says he is "well qualified to understand the realities that our patients face, and the consequences that illegal acts may have upon children."

Dettelbach, who likely faces a tough road to confirmation, is Biden's second nominee to lead ATF.

His first choice was David Chipman, a former ATF agent who became a vocal gun control advocate after leaving the agency. Chipman came under withering criticism from gun rights groups like the National Rifle Association, and the White House ultimately withdrew his nomination after it became clear Chipman didn't have the votes to win confirmation.

That process has played out repeatedly, in one form or another, since the ATF director's job began requiring Senate confirmation in 2006. The agency has had just one confirmed director in that span, and last had a permanent boss in 2015.

Dettelbach has also received backing from gun control groups as well as some law enforcement organizations, including the Major County Sheriffs of America and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.

But the endorsement from APSA stands out because it comes from pediatric surgeons who have had to treat some of the youngest victims of gun violence in the United States.

Last year 1,063 children up to age 11 were killed or injured by guns, as well as 4,625 teens, ages 12 to 17, according to the nonpartisan Gun Violence Archive. Both totals were roughly double what they were in 2014, the first year the data group provides information for firearm-involved violence.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.