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The ATF director explains what the bureau is doing about gun violence

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There have been 85 mass shootings in the U.S. so far this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive. Steven Dettelbach's phone flashes with alerts each time. He runs the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. This week, he talked with NPR's Carrie Johnson about the scourge of gun violence and what ATF is doing about it.

STEVEN DETTELBACH: My biggest fear is that people in this country will somehow become calloused to what's going on.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Steve Dettelbach has been running the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives since last July. Shootings during that period have killed about 100 Americans every day.

DETTELBACH: This problem is a problem that is not just on the news. It's around the corner. It's in your neighborhood. If people in this country think that they're immune to it because of their zip code or their address, they're wrong.

JOHNSON: For the first time in 20 years, ATF this month released data on crime guns. The report showed that guns purchased legally fall into the wrong hands and get brandished in violent crimes faster than ever. Another worry, Dettelbach says, are deadly machine gun conversion devices that can fire far more rounds.

DETTELBACH: Machine gun conversion devices - these are little pieces of plastic or metal that people attach to a lawful semi-automatic weapon that turns it into a totally unlawful machine gun - can fire a thousand rounds a minute. We're swimming in these devices. I've heard it from police departments all over the country.

JOHNSON: ATF is a small agency, with fewer than 50 agents in New York City, where the city's own police force numbers 36,000. That means partnerships with state and local law enforcement are important. Dettelbach just hired the former president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police to help boost those relationships. ATF can offer local police more intelligence about guns used in crimes.

DETTELBACH: A large group of people may commit crimes, but it's a much smaller group who are trigger-pullers and shooters who terrorize the neighborhoods we live in. And, working with state and local law enforcement, we have crime gun intelligence centers springing up all over the country to make operational this data so that we can identify the worst of the worst and get them out of the community.

JOHNSON: ATF has moved to regulate so-called ghost guns, often sold in a kit, with parts bearing no serial number. But the agency faces persistent legal challenges, and the courts haven't always been a friendly venue. This month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit threw out a law that bars people subject to a restraining order for domestic violence from possessing guns. Attorney General Merrick Garland has promised to appeal. The ATF director says, in most parts of the country, that law barring gun possession by domestic abusers is still in force. And he says Congress, last year, made clear that ban applies to boyfriends or partners - not just married people.

DETTELBACH: I think that there are a lot of people in this country who believe that protecting women from abusers with guns is a really important thing to do. We certainly believe that at ATF.

JOHNSON: Dettelbach, the U.S. attorney in Ohio during the Obama years, is operating in a more complicated and politically fraught environment now. Gun safety groups are pressing the Biden administration to do more, and gun rights groups are pushing back.

DETTELBACH: In our constitutional system, it's - Congress to pass the laws. We have the ability that Congress has given us to define some of the terms that they pass in their laws. That's what we do at ATF. That's all we can do.

JOHNSON: Last year, Congress created two new standalone gun crimes, including one that cracks down on firearms trafficking. Dettelbach says they've charged 30 defendants under those new statutes, with more cases in the works.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.