Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Director Steve Dettelbach refused to define the term “assault weapon” on Wednesday, saying it was a decision for Congress.
Dettlebach testified before the House Judiciary Committee to speak about the pistol brace rule that would outlaw common stabilizing mechanisms.
Dettlebach was questioned by Democratic Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who asked the ATF director whether he knew what an “assault weapon” was after acknowledging the recent mass shooting in Buffalo, New York.
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ATF Director Steve Dettelbach appeared at a House subcommittee hearing on April 18. (House Committee )
“Let me just hold up just to pay tribute and acknowledge that these are the deceased — their families are still mourning — of the incident in Buffalo at the grocery store. It was an assault weapon that killed them,” said Lee.
She continued, “My question to you is just simply a ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ You know what an assault weapon is? You seen one?”
Dettlebach deflected the question, saying the term is not something he’s qualified to rule on.
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“Again, that would be a decision for Congress to make, respectfully, as to make that definition. It is… There are numerous different legislative bodies that have taken up that question,” Dettlebach said before being cut off.
“If we laid a weapon on the table, you could pretty much say, ‘That falls in the category of assault weapon.'” Lee interjected during Dettlebach’s testimony.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, speaks at a news conference in Washington, D.C. (REUTERS/Erin Scott)
The ATF director did not budge, responding, “Respectfully, that is a decision that different legislative bodies have come up with different definitions for. It would be for the legislators to make that determined action as to how they would define it unless they were to delegate that authority to ATF.”
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The back-and-forth was a continuation of an ongoing conflict surrounding the non-technical term “assault weapon.”
The term has been widely used in policy debates and legislative discussions, but its meaning has become nearly indiscernible due to its lack of concrete qualifiers.
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Director Steven Dettelbach (Pool Video)
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Dettelbach appeared before a House Appropriations subcommittee on April 18 where he was similarly questioned by Republican Rep. Jake Ellzey to define an assault weapon.
“As a gun owner of many different types and a 20-year military veteran, I have some expertise in weaponry and self-defense weapons. In 15 seconds, would you define an ‘assault weapon’ for me?” Ellzey asked.
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The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Rich Clement/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
“I’ll go shorter than that, because 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. 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,” Dettelbach answered.