New ATF Head Is Its First Senate-Confirmed Leader In 7 Years

After a long delay, the Senate has finally confirmed B. Todd Jones to be the first permanent director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives. Who is he and what took so long?

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

For the first time in seven years, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has a director confirmed by the Senate. He is B. Todd Jones, and the vote last night was 52-to-43. Bitter fights over gun control and enforcement have bogged down previous nominees in both the Bush and Obama administrations.

With us here to talk about Jones and that ATF logjam is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, good to see you.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Thanks, Melissa. You too.

BLOCK: So seven years since ATF had a permanent head. Why did it take so long?

JOHNSON: It's complicated, but it really boils down to the politics of gun control in the United States Senate. The previous nominee in the Bush years was a U.S. attorney named Mike Sullivan out of Boston. He led the ATF in an acting capacity for a long time, but he never got a Senate vote. And earlier in the Obama administration, the White House nominated Andrew Traver, a longtime ATF agent out of Chicago. He waited more than two years, and he never even got a hearing.

When we talk about the first confirmed director in seven years, what we're really talking about here, Melissa, is that back in 2006, as part of the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Wisconsin, inserted this wrinkle into the reauthorization, which is to say the ATF director would require Senate confirmation. And since that time, they haven't been able to get anybody through.

BLOCK: This has been a political football all those years.

JOHNSON: Absolutely, both because of the strength of the National Rifle Association and some of the ATF's own missteps.

BLOCK: OK. Well, tell us more about Todd Jones, the new director. What's he known for?

JOHNSON: Todd Jones is a longtime federal prosecutor. He's actually been the top federal prosecutor in Minneapolis, Minnesota, both in the Clinton administration and again in the Obama administration. He comes from a long line of military men in his family, and he was a former U.S. Marine himself.

President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder asked Todd Jones essentially to do double duty, to both be the top prosecutor in Minnesota and fill in at the ATF on an acting director basis after that huge gun-trafficking scandal along the southwest border known as fast and furious.

Jones came in and really tried to stabilize the ATF. He's been on the job for some time now, holding two jobs and transferring back and forth to Minneapolis where his wife lives and four of his five kids live.

BLOCK: Is there any sense of what issues matter most to him moving forward, what his top priorities will be at ATF?

JOHNSON: Todd Jones is known as a good manager. And I think the biggest challenge that has confronted him and will continue to confront him is a management challenge. Out of about 25 field directors of the ATF all over the country, he's already managed to replace well over a dozen of those people. And one of the goals is to transition the bureau into a new, active, sort of energetic set of managers and make that baton pass work quickly.

He's also very, very interested in resuming the focus on violent crime. He's been sending teams of ATF agents to hot spots around the country where gun violence is on the rise. They include places like Oakland, California, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Flint, Michigan. He's also maintaining the ATF's focus on explosives and detection. Remember, Melissa, that earlier this year, after that humongous explosion in Texas, the ATF was the lead agency on the scene.

BLOCK: It's interesting, too, Carrie, that the National Rifle Association did not oppose a vote on his confirmation this week. What do you take from that? What's the meaning there?

JOHNSON: This was a huge development. The NRA essentially decided to remain neutral on his nomination. It said it would not score the vote against senators who voted to approve Todd Jones, and it cleared the way for six Republicans last night to join the Democrats to limit debate and pave the way for his final confirmation.

It's not clear just why the NRA held its fire, so to speak, but one reason might be pressure from key Democrats in the Senate who said they'd introduce legislation to merge the ATF with the FBI, thus ushering in perhaps even more aggressive gun enforcement than they're already undergoing at this point.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks a lot.

JOHNSON: You're welcome.

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