USA Today Launches Series On ATF Failures Ahead Of Chipman Nomination Vote

AP Photo/Andrew Selsky

It’s no coincidence that the same week that Joe Biden’s nominee to head up the ATF had his confirmation hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Michael Bloomberg’s anti-gun news site The Trace has teamed up with USA Today on a big, multi-part series exploring the ATF’s alleged laxity in enforcing federal gun laws overseeing firearms retailers. Gun control activists have been downplaying the fact that Chipman is one of their own, having worked for both Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns and the gun control group Giffords for nearly a decade.

Instead, the anti-gun activists are playing up Chipman’s 25 years at ATF to portray him as a seasoned veteran who can come in and whip the agency into shape, and this new series from The Trace and USA Today seems designed to bolster that argument in advance of a confirmation vote with headlines like “After repeated ATF warnings, gun dealers can count on the agency to back off; sometimes firearms flow to criminals” and “Gun used in Odessa shooting shows risk when chain of illegal sale starts with home-based hobbyist dealers“.

The theme running through these stories is that the ATF is far too easygoing when it comes to oversight over firearms retailers, and the agency is in desperate need of a “reformer” who’ll zealously try to shut down any gun shop that violates ATF regulations.

The ATF is facing intense scrutiny as the Senate considers President Joe Biden’s pick for the agency’s first permanent director in six years. The confirmation of David Chipman, a former ATF agent who has advocated stricter gun laws, is unfolding against a backdrop of public anguish over mass shootings and a renewed determination from the White House to clamp down on easy access to firearms.

In one of the most sweeping examinations of ATF inspection records, The Traceand USA TODAY found that the federal agency in charge of policing the gun industry has been largely toothless and conciliatory, bending over backward to go easy on wayward dealers such as Uncle Sam’s – and sometimes allowing guns to flow into the hands of criminals.

Gun industry lobbyists have fought for decades against tougher oversight by casting gun dealers as among the most heavily regulated businesses in the USA. The Trace and USA TODAY’s review found that dealers are largely immune from serious punishment and enjoy layers of protection unavailable to most other industries.

That’s another key angle to the narrative set by The Trace and USA Today; that the ATF would be a far more effective agency if it weren’t for the darn gun lobby and the firearms industry. In the first story that the anti-gun reporters dropped, you have to scroll down dozens of paragraphs before you even get to a comment from the National Shooting Sports Foundation itself.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the gun industry’s trade group, works with the ATF to educate license holders about how to stay within the bounds of the law and prevent illegal trafficking.

“By and large, firearm retailers are law-abiding and follow local, state and federal authorities,” said Mark Oliva, a National Shooting Sports Foundation spokesman. “We’re members of our community, mom-and-pop shops committed to keeping our communities safe.”

The foundation recruits consultants and former ATF inspectors to put shops through mock inspections. For $750, the organization will run a full-day compliance check that produces a confidential report of shortcomings. It also hosts a hotline for retail federal firearm license holders, which Oliva said receives hundreds of calls a year.

But Rich Marianos, a former ATF assistant director, said the foundation is committed to keeping regulation as weak as possible. In 2020, it spent $4.5 million on lobbying, more than twice as much as the National Rifle Association, which spent $2.2 million, according to OpenSecrets.org, a nonpartisan research group that tracks money in politics.

“They’re like the NRA,” Marianos said. “Never once have they said the ATF needs more money, help, support or resources.”

Oliva disputes that characterization. He provided confidential records of the group’s lobbying of Congress in recent years to add millions for ATF’s licensing system and millions more to improve criminal background checks at the Department of Justice.

Think about that for a second. One of the major thrusts of this story is that the NSSF works to keep the ATF as ineffective as possible, but the organization was able to prove to USA Today and The Trace that it has pushed for more funding for the agency. Rather than highlight that information, the reporters bury it in the 110th paragraph.

While the new series by USA Today and The Trace is meant to bolster the argument that the ATF needs a permanent director like Chipman to whip agents into shape and to close gun shops that have repeatedly run afoul of the agencies regulations, you could also make the argument that, if the agency is truly as soft on wayward gun dealers as the reporters claim, that an ATF veteran like Chipman has been part of the problem. After all, he spent 25 years as an ATF agent, including several years where he was head of the Firearms Division. It would seem to me that if the agency is as lax in enforcement as the reporters allege, that a true outsider would be needed to reform the agency from within. Instead of a reformer, however, the Biden administration and gun control groups are trying to put a longtime ATF agent turned anti-gun activist at the helm.