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ATF Director Calls for Universal Background Checks, Assault Weapons Ban at Harvard IOP Forum

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Steve M. Dettelbach — director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives — called for an assault weapons ban and universal background checks at a Harvard Institute of Politics forum Monday.

Women, Gender, and Sexuality senior lecturer Caroline E. Light moderated the talk, which was hosted by the IOP’s JFK Jr. Forum.

Light opened the conversation by asking Dettelbach for an overview of the landscape of gun violence in America.

Dettelbach said the country is “not in a very good place,” pointing to the prevalence of mass shootings in the U.S. as well as overall deaths to gun violence.

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He referenced the recent mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine — where a gunman killed at least 18 people — but said the vast majority of shooting deaths do not receive widespread coverage.

“There’s also, every day in the United States, over 120 people who lose their lives because of firearms violence,” Dettelbach said. “Every day, there are somewhere between six and seven Lewistons that occur, mostly anonymously, in this country.”

Dettelbach outlined two “fundamental pillars” to reducing gun violence in America.

“One pillar is we have to get better — and at ATF, we are getting better — on identifying the drivers of violent crime,” he said. “We are getting better at identifying those few people who are likely to shoot.”

The second pillar is “doing something to either stop or at least slow down the flow of firearms to those people,” Dettelbach added.

To achieve this, he said, the ATF must prioritize “following the gun,” or keeping track of where a gun was prior to its use in a crime.

Light noted that there is some resistance to providing additional data that could facilitate gun tracking and asked Dettelbach to explain that reluctance.

“We take the laws that Congress passes, and we follow them,” Dettelbach replied.

“Congress has said that we’re not allowed to have a gun registry, and Congress has said that we’re not allowed to have certain types of searchable databases,” he said. “We follow those rules, meticulously, because in our constitutional form of government, when there is a law passed, you follow it.”

Light then transitioned to discussing America’s gun culture. Dettelbach said a significant part of the problem is “apathy” to gun violence, which he explained as a “sort of defense mechanism.”

“The temperature on this discussion is way too high, way too high to actually get things done,” he added. “We’re only going to get things done in this country when we can find some level of consensus around certain things.”

When asked for his “wishlist” if he could ask Congress for any powers or authorities, Dettelbach called for a higher barrier to gun purchases and restrictions on which firearms can be sold.

“I think it would be helpful if we had universal background checks in this country. I think that’s something that makes some sense,” Dettelbach said.

He added that he supports a ban on assault weapons.

“The president has also said, and I agree, that we should consider and reinstate a ban on certain types of assault weapons,” he said.

“I am not trying to be cute when I say this. It is emphatically the job of the United States Congress to write a definition” of assault weapons, he added.

Dettelbach said an overemphasis on individual rights, including the Second Amendment right to bear arms, impairs the ability to address gun violence as a public safety issue.

“People who have the view that their rights, their individual rights, are the only thing that should be taken into account — it is just not who we are as Americans,” he said. “We care about our rights, of course, but we respect other people’s rights, too.”

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