Gun Rights Groups Threatened To Sink Biden's ATF Nominee. He's Withdrawing The Pick

Sep 9, 2021
Originally published on September 9, 2021 4:21 pm

Updated September 9, 2021 at 2:04 PM ET

President Biden has pulled David Chipman's nomination to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in the face of opposition from gun rights groups, Republican senators and a few Democrats.

Chipman, a former ATF agent who became a prominent gun control advocate after leaving the agency, has been ensnared in a brutal confirmation battle since Biden nominated him this spring.

With the Senate evenly divided and Republicans united in opposition, Chipman needed every Democratic and independent senator to push his nomination across the line. In the end, that didn't happen.

"He would have been an exemplary Director of the ATF and would have redoubled its efforts to crack down on illegal firearms traffickers and help keep our communities safe from gun violence," Biden said in a statement on Thursday. "Unfortunately, Republicans in Congress have made clear that they intend to use gun crime as a political talking point instead of taking serious steps to address it."

The result means the ATF will be without a Senate-confirmed boss yet again. The agency hasn't had a confirmed director in six years. It's had only one since Congress made the position subject to Senate confirmation in 2006.

Chipman faced opposition from gun rights groups

Gun violence prevention advocates called the administration's decision to pull Chipman's nomination a blow to Biden's efforts to address what the president has described as an "epidemic" of gun violence in the United States.

"This is a boon for gun manufacturers that profit from the weak enforcement of existing gun laws and have spent millions maligning this dedicated public servant," said Igor Volsky, founder and executive director of Guns Down America.

Those who opposed Chipman's nomination, however, welcomed the news.

"Glad to hear reports the White House is taking my advice and pulling the terrible nomination of David Chipman," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on Twitter. "Absurd that a vocal opponent of Americans' constitutional rights was ever picked to run ATF. This is a win for the Second Amendment and law-abiding American citizens."

The struggle to get a confirmed director on the books over the years has been due in large part to opposition from gun rights groups such as the National Rifle Association.

That dynamic played out again this time. The NRA, Gun Owners of America, the National Association for Gun Rights and similar groups blasted Chipman's nomination, calling him a threat to law-abiding gun owners.

Chipman is currently a senior policy adviser at Giffords, the gun violence prevention group started by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was almost killed in a mass shooting in 2011.

Chipman is a gun owner and gun control advocate

Chipman, who says he owns guns, has voiced support for a ban on assault weapons and limits on high-capacity magazines.

Before becoming a gun control advocate, he worked for more than two decades for the ATF, first as a special agent in the field and later in a supervisory role.

His advocacy work earned him strong support from the gun violence prevention community.

But it also energized gun rights groups, who lobbied hard to try to torpedo his confirmation.

Earlier this summer, Democrats expressed confidence that they'd be able to secure the votes necessary to push Chipman through. But as the summer progressed, Chipman's nomination ended up stuck in limbo for weeks as a few key Democrats — Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana — as well as independent Sen. Angus King of Maine remained on the fence.

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President Biden nominated David Chipman this spring to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Now, five months later, the president is pulling Chipman's nomination in the face of opposition from gun rights groups and senators on both sides of the aisle. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas has been covering this and joins us now.

Hey, Ryan.


CHANG: All right, so what has the White House said about this decision?

LUCAS: Well, President Biden said in a statement that he thinks Chipman would have been an exemplary ATF director, someone who would have accelerated the agency's work cracking down on things like illegal gun trafficking. And he criticized Republicans for being united in their opposition to Chipman's nomination. But it was always clear that Chipman had a very narrow path to confirmation in the Senate, which, of course, is evenly divided 50-50 between the parties.

And Senate Republicans have been united in their opposition to Chipman. And that meant that he would need the support of every Democrat and independent in the Senate, plus the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris, to get confirmed. And for months now, it's been clear that a couple of Democrats - including Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Jon Tester of Montana - had concerns about Chipman. But I'm told the ultimate hold-up came from independent Angus King, who has lobbied hard by gun groups in his home state of Maine.

CHANG: I can imagine. OK. Well, the thing is ATF has not had a permanent Senate-confirmed director in, like, six years. I mean, over the past decade and a half, there have been a number of different acting directors. Can you just explain for everyone why is this job so difficult to fill?

LUCAS: It's funny that you say that. Chipman himself a few years ago described the confirmation process for ATF director specifically as walking into a buzz saw, and that's what this has been. Gun violence prevention groups were ecstatic when Chipman was nominated. Chipman worked for more than two decades for the ATF. He became a prominent and very outspoken gun control advocate after that, and that really set him apart from previous nominees.

But it also made Chipman the target of intense opposition from gun rights groups like the National Rifle Association and others, who painted him as a radical. And they lobbied hard to try to torpedo his nomination. And this is something that we have seen play out time and time again over the past 15 years or so. Gun rights groups and manufacturers have consistently pushed back against ATF nominees, including even former President Trump's nominee, who was a former head of the Fraternal Order of Police.

CHANG: Indeed. Well, the thing is President Biden has described gun violence in this country as an epidemic. He has vowed to tackle the problem. What do you think the end of Chipman's nomination might mean for this administration's broader efforts at this point?

LUCAS: Well, talking to gun control advocates, they certainly see this as a setback. The ATF director job is an important job. The agency, of course, is responsible for enforcing gun laws in this country. It's understaffed. Morale is not great. Some say ATF has lacked vision and political support and in large part because the agency hasn't had, as you said, a confirmed leader in years.

And that, of course, appears unlikely to change anytime soon now that Chipman's nomination is no longer current. But the administration's efforts to combat gun violence are not hanging solely on a new ATF director. It has other moves in the works. For example, it's pledged to free up federal funds for state and local law enforcement to hire more cops and also to help fund job opportunities for young people and at-risk adults. And the Justice Department, for its part, has launched a strike force in five major cities to combat illegal gun trafficking. But certainly, yes, the ATF director is a big job. And, of course, we will have to wait and see who Biden puts forward as his new nominee.

CHANG: That is NPR's Ryan Lucas.

Thank you, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you.