Why Even Democrats Should Oppose Biden's ATF Nominee

Why Even Democrats Should Oppose Biden's ATF Nominee
AP Photo/Julio Cortez

The single most important piece of Joe Biden’s first round of executive actions on gun control isn’t an executive order, but the nomination of former ATF agent turned gun control activist David Chipman to head up the agency where he worked for decades, but the nomination could pose some problems for the Biden administration, even among some Democrats, because of the views that Chipman has taken over the years.

Democrats are big on reforming the criminal justice system right now, and there’s a growing split on the Left between those who still support “white-centric gun control laws”, as reporter Alain Stephens of The Trace recently called them, and actual violence prevention efforts that don’t involve putting new laws on the books and putting more people behind bars but instead focus on deterring crime and violence through targeted deterrence and even non-policing methods like de-escalation and violence interrupters.

Chipman is squarely in the “ban and arrest our way to safety” camp, as evidenced by comments he made in an “Ask Me Anything” thread on Reddit last year. Chipman was up front about the fact that he believes it should be a crime for anyone to sell a gun without going through a commercial firearms dealer, arguing that even opening up the NICS system to allow private sellers access isn’t enough.

Just the same reason we don’t let citizens sell prescription drugs to each other. The licensed gun dealer serves as an independent third party required to verify the identity of the buyer and request a background check from the FBI. Guns purchased from gun stores can be traced if used in crime so the issue is more than simply the background check, it’s record-keeping that helps police solve crime.

Sell a gun to your friend or neighbor without first finding a gun store that will conduct a background check on the sale? Chipman thinks that should be a criminal offense, and under the universal background check bill approved by the House, violators could face up to a year in a federal prison for doing so.

In that same Reddit threat, Chipman also said that he believes that, of all the current gun laws out there, one that needs greater enforcement is against those who “carry a gun illegally.” While many folks may nod their head in agreement, as reporters like Emily Bazelon of Slate have pointed out, places with the type of restrictive carry laws that Chipman embraces are arresting and convicting a disproportionate number of young black men for the non-violent, possessory offense. As Bazelon wrote in 2019:

When gun control advocates discuss how to restrict access to lethal weapons, they mostly talk about permit requirements and background checks. But that coin has another side: punishment for people accused of possessing guns without the state’s permission. In January 2016, Mayor Bill de Blasio established a specialized gun court in Brooklyn to fast-track the city’s “remaining evildoers”—his words—to prison. Almost all of them faced the most serious possible charge for possession of an illegal loaded gun, which in New York carried a minimum sentence of 3½ years in prison and a maximum of 15 years. In theory, the mayor’s initiative was a tough-minded solution to gun violence that anti-gun liberals and law-and-order conservatives could unite behind.

Two and a half years ago, I started visiting the Brooklyn gun court to see how it was working.

I thought I’d find horrific stories of gun violence and hardened evildoers, like de Blasio said. Instead, over many months of my reporting, I found hundreds of teenagers and young people, almost all of them black, being marched to prison not for firing a gun, or even pointing one, but for having one. Many of them had minimal criminal records. To be precise, when I went through 200 case files, I found that 70 percent of the defendants in gun court had no previous felony convictions.

Here’s what predicted who ended up on the benches in gun court: race and age. Black people are less likely to own guns than white people, but the defendants in gun court were almost all black teenagers and young men. An initiative that sounded like a targeted attack on America’s gun problem looked up close more like stop-and-frisk or the war on drugs—one more way to round up young black men. Reviewing my book in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik suggested that a kid locked up for a drug offense would have made a more representative subject. But drug charges are the old way of shunting people to prison. Gun possession, and similar offenses that states treat as violent, is the new way.  And the 20-year-old whose case I followed wasn’t “the wrong kid” from the point of view of the system or the politicians that built it. His case was typical in gun court, because he was exactly the kind of person the mayor’s plan was designed to ensnare.

This ideology is a fundamental part of Chipman’s past experience and future plans. Oh sure, he’ll talk a lot during his confirmation process about the need for more violence prevention programs that don’t involve arrests and prosecutions, but back before Biden tapped him to head the ATF, he was much more open about his agenda; more gun control laws, more arrests, and more people in prison as a result.

Gun control groups aren’t going to acknowledge what Chipman’s ideology means. In fact groups like March For Our Lives are praising Chipman’s nomination, calling him a “a leader in the gun violence prevention movement,” which is a joke.

We know that enforcement alone will not keep us safe from gun violence, and we’re encouraged that the president appears to think so too.

Um, no. What Chipman’s nomination shows is that Biden’s embraced a strategy of more gun control laws, more arrests for non-violent offenses, and more people incarcerated as a result. Sure, Biden says he wants to include $5-billion for gun violence prevention programs in his infrastructure bill, but he’s determined to put a person in charge of the ATF who believes that the answer to addressing violent crime is through more heavy-handed enforcement of restrictive laws that will fall disproportionately on communities of color. March For Our Lives is either deluding itself or its supporters in hailing Chipman’s nomination as a good thing for a violence prevention-centered approach to making our communities safer.

Any Democrat who claims to be a supporter of criminal justice reform cannot in good conscience support Chipman’s nomination, because Chipman is a true believer in the idea of replacing the failed War on Drugs with a brand new War on Guns, with young black men bearing the biggest brunt of enforcement. You don’t have to be a Second Amendment supporter to object to Chipman in charge of the ATF. You just have to care more about actually preventing violence than putting people in prison for non-violent, possessory offenses involving firearms.


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