It looks like a confirmation hearing for the former ATF agent turned gun control activists who Joe Biden nominated to run the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives will take place in just a few weeks, and the administration appears to be engaging in a bit of pre-hearing spin with the help of the New York Times. In a lengthy new piece, reporters Danny Hakim and Mike McIntire portray the agency that oversees our nation’s gun laws and firearms industry as the “whipping boy” for the NRA in years past, but the ATF is now at the heart of Biden’s gun control agenda.
Mr. Biden has ordered a ban on the homemade-firearm kits known as “ghost guns,” a prohibition the A.T.F. will have to enforce. To help set gun policy, he has charged the A.T.F. with undertaking the first comprehensive federal survey of weapons-trafficking patterns since 2000. And to lead the bureau into the future, Mr. Biden has nominated a fiery former A.T.F. agent and gun-control activist, David Chipman.
First, though, the bureau will have to overcome its past. In the 48 years since its mission shifted primarily to firearms enforcement, it has been weakened by relentless assaults from the N.R.A. that have, in the view of many, made the A.T.F. appear to be an agency engineered to fail.
At the N.R.A.’s instigation, Congress has limited the bureau’s budget. It has imposed crippling restrictions on the collection and use of gun-ownership data, including a ban on requiring basic inventories of weapons from gun dealers. It has limited unannounced inspections of gun dealers. Fifteen years ago, the N.R.A. successfully lobbied to make the director’s appointment subject to Senate confirmation — and has subsequently helped block all but one nominee from taking office.
The Times neglects to mention that one of the reasons why the ATF has had a difficult time getting a permanent director confirmed is because Democrats have offered up some candidates that simply couldn’t pass muster with a majority of the U.S. Senate. In 2010, for instance, Barack Obama nominated ATF agent Andrew Traver as permanent director, but his nomination never received a vote on the Senate floor because a number of senators had voiced their concerns over Traver’s anti-gun attitudes.
Obama’s second nominee, B. Todd Jones, was ultimately confirmed by the Senate but remained in the job for less than two years before retiring in 2015 and taking a job with the NFL.
Despite Traver’s anti-gun rhetoric scuttling his chances at the top job, the Biden administration has also nominated a former agent with deep ties to the gun control movement. David Chipman spent 25 years at the ATF, but has also spent nearly a decade working for gun control groups like Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Giffords. According to the Times, Chipman may not have the votes to be confirmed either, though the paper says he does have the backing of one of the most important members of the Senate these days.
The Chipman pick “is poking people in the eye,” said Joshua Powell, a former top official at the N.R.A. turned critic of its leadership. “I think the president would be better served by appointing a more apolitical person and building more bridges to bipartisanship.”
Mr. Chipman’s confirmation — the Senate hearing is expected to take place in late May — is anything but certain, with one West Wing official saying his “absolute ceiling” in the Senate was 51 or 52 yes votes. Mr. Manchin, a critical vote, has said he is favorable to Mr. Chipman, and administration officials insist that there is no reason to create a Plan B if his nomination founders.
Mr. Chipman, for his part, did not respond to a request for comment through an official with Ms. Giffords’s gun-control group.
If Chipman isn’t confirmed by the Senate, Biden could still appoint him as acting director, though he wouldn’t have quite as much power and authority as he would if he’s confirmed permanently to the position.
We’ll see if the confirmation hearing actually takes place later this month. I’ve had several industry officials tell me that they’d be surprised to see it happen, but with the Senate filibuster in place, Biden’s legislative agenda to enact new gun laws is stalled, and that means that the ATF really is the lynchpin for his plans to curtail gun violence by targeting legal gun owners. In the coming days and weeks, gun owners should be contacting their senators to urge them to oppose Chipman’s nomination. Gun control activists may believe that the ATF has become the NRA’s “whipping boy”, but they want to turn the federal agency into their own attack dog.