Gun control groups trying to push out acting ATF director

Gun control groups trying to push out acting ATF director
AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

After former ATF agent-turned-gun control activist David Chipman’s nomination as ATF director was pulled from consideration last year, gun control groups (and Chipman himself) blamed the White House for failing to shepherd Chipman through the confirmation process. Since then, we’ve seen a number of stories from outlets friendly to the anti-gun movement about the frustration and disappointment of activists upset over what they see as a lack of action on the part of the White House, including a new story from the New York Times that features several activists taking aim at Marvin Richardson, the acting director of the ATF.

“A.T.F. needs a top-to-bottom overhaul,” said John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown for Gun Safety, the gun control group funded by former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York. “That starts with the administration making sure the agency has the resources and leadership it needs to regulate an industry that has consistently prioritized profits over public safety.”

Gun control has long been a centerpiece of Mr. Biden’s agenda, a point he underlined during his State of the Union address on Tuesday when he declared that his proposals to ban assault weapons and eliminate the ban on lawsuits against gunmakers would “save lives.” But Senate Republicans are blocking him, forcing the White House to pursue limited executive actions through an underfunded agency systematically weakened by congressional Republicans and the gun lobby.

And increasingly, progressives see Mr. Richardson’s low-key leadership of A.T.F.’s policymaking functions as part of the problem.

Administration officials say Mr. Richardson is making the best of a thankless job and has spent much of his time focused on deploying agents to deal with gun violence. His leadership “has been critical” to combating the recent national rise in shootings, said a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, Dena Iverson.

The gun control groups are upset, at least in part, because Richardson and the ATF not only had a presence at this year’s SHOT Show (as they do every year), but Richardson sat down with NSSF general counsel and senior vice president Larry Keane for an on-camera interview that included discussion about the industry’s partnership with the ATF on programs like the anti-straw purchase campaign “Don’t Lie for the Other Guy”.

The anti-gun groups sent a letter to the White House last week with a list of demands for the president, which included a call to “stop funding, partnering, or co-branding programs with the National Sports Shooting Foundation via the Department of Justice and other Federal Agencies”.

The gun prohibition lobby is intent on making the ATF the biggest adversary of the firearms industry, and the confirmation of David Chipman as permanent ATF director was the key to implementing that strategy. With Chipman out of the picture and no sign of a new nominee being named anytime soon, activists have been trying to get the Biden administration to create a new White House-level position for a gun control advocate, but the Times reports that the efforts have been squashed by one of Biden’s top advisors.

In recent weeks, anti-gun groups have stepped up pressure on the White House and Attorney General Merrick B. Garland as the administration continues a protracted search for a new nominee to lead the bureau. In addition to pushing for faster enforcement of the ghost gun rule, they have urged Mr. Biden to create a special gun violence office in the West Wing comparable to the one he has established for climate policy.

But that proposal has been rejected by Susan Rice, the president’s domestic policy adviser. She has told gun control activists, including Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter was killed in the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., in 2018, that there is no need to hang another “shingle” in the West Wing to deal with the problem.

“The White House has already taken some very important actions, and I respect the enormous amount of things they have to do,” said Mr. Guttenberg, who met with Ms. Rice in December. “But the sole purpose of establishing an office is not to make policy, it’s about sending a message that gun violence matters, that there is someone in the White House working 24/7 on this.”

As I pointed out earlier this week, there are currently several hundred positions in the administration that have yet to be filled, so even if the administration did want to throw gun control activists a bone, I don’t think it’s going to be the creation of a do-nothing position in the White House that’s all about “messaging.” Instead, it’s far more likely that the administration will continue to use the DOJ and the ATF to push out new rules and regulations targeting legal gun owners as their main anti-gun strategy.

In fact, the acting ATF director told industry officials at SHOT Show that the ATF’s new rule on incomplete frames and receivers will be finalized and published in June. That’s far too long to wait, as far as gun control groups are concerned, and the Times reports that the White House has tried to walk back Richardson’s comments to the industry.

But two White House officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter, said Mr. Richardson had misspoken and that the rule would, in fact, be finished by early April. They said that another claim by Mr. Richardson, that enforcement of the regulation would begin 90 days after the rule was completed, was also off base, and that the gap would be closer to 60 days.

According to a DOJ spokesperson, Richardson was reading from a White House budget document when he said it would be June before the rule is finished, so this looks to me like an attempt to placate angry anti-gun activists rather than a cas of Richardson actually misspeaking.

Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if we do see that rule published earlier than what Richardson had originally said, though I don’t know that the activists are going to be all that happy with the final language, which is not expected to ban home-built guns outright.

As for the activists’ attempts to push Marvin Richardson out of his position as acting ATF director, my guess is that the administration will try keep him in place until he retires next year, though with Republicans looking increasingly likely to take control of both the House and Senate, I’m sure that the gun control lobby will be demanding Biden nominate someone while Democrats are still in charge.