ATF candidate David Chipman faces excessive odds within the battle for Senate approval: NPR

President Biden named David Chipman, seen here in 2019, as his candidate to lead the ATF in early April. Andrew Harnik / AP Hide caption

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Andrew Harnik / AP

President Biden named David Chipman, seen here in 2019, as his candidate to lead the ATF in early April.

Andrew Harnik / AP

The key agency enforcing federal gun laws appears poised to continue its six-year term without a formal director, given the chances of President Biden’s candidate getting Senate approval given the staunch Republican opposition and some resistance fighters in the chamber Democratic Group seem to be disappearing.

Biden’s candidate to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, David Chipman, languishes more than four months after he was tapped.

Chipman is a 25-year agency veteran who became a policy expert and attorney for the gun safety group Giffords.

During his quarter century with the ATF – which regulates and enforces firearms laws – Chipman served as a specialty agent on the ground and later in a supervisory role. He also responded to two high profile terrorist attacks in the 1990s.

His lobbying work in the years thereafter has earned him strong awards from the gun safety community.

And while Biden had hoped Chipman’s references with the ATF would help lift the agency out of its year-long directorless slump, the powerful gun lobby and GOP opponents – along with some Democrats – delayed his nomination, highlighting the deeply political debate that has surrounded the agency for the past 15 years.

“It’s almost impossible to get verified leadership,” said Christian Heyne, vice president of policy for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

“We allowed the very industry that should be supervised to dictate who should supervise them,” added Heyne. “That is a huge problem in and of itself.”

NRA: Chipman “cannot be trusted”

Since Chipman was nominated in April, Republicans and the arms industry have been open about his alleged inability to run law enforcement.

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“David Chipman is a former anti-weapons lobbyist unable to run the ATF,” Florida Senator Marco Rubio said in a statement last month. “Violent crime is increasing in cities across the country. Rather than addressing the real source of the problem, Chipman seems more interested in punishing law-abiding gun owners and sharing insane internet conspiracies.”

In the past few months, the National Rifle Association’s lobbying arm has published or republished nearly two dozen articles critical of Chipman, including a series of petitions naming senators and asking them to vote against his endorsement.

“Make no mistake, David Chipman is a gun control extremist and you can’t trust him,” one such post said.

Criticism has focused on Chipman’s work since leaving the agency, where he worked as a political advisor to the gun security organization named after former MP Gabby Giffords, which survived a 2011 assassination attempt with serious injuries.

Since then she has been a sharp critic of the lax gun laws. The former Arizona Congressman supported Chipman’s nomination, hailing him as a responsible gun owner, distinguished law enforcement officer, and the “perfect choice” to lead the ATF.

Maine’s King is a voice to watch

But it is precisely this kind of approval that Chipman’s critics have taken up. And there is some evidence that their opposition campaign is working.

“Being a former lawmaker myself, I understand exactly what a law enforcement candidate should be and do,” said David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine lobbying wing.

Trahan, whose organization campaigns for gun rights, said Chipman’s time at Giffords had tarnished his image as an unbiased candidate. Trahan said he contacted his U.S. senators to express concern about Chipman’s nomination.

“I compare that to nominating a Republican president [NRA CEO] Wayne LaPierre to run this office, ”he said. “The ATF director should be supported by more than one party to be effective. And in this case, I think the president made the wrong choice. “

Senator Angus King, I-Maine, has reportedly spoken out against Chipman’s endorsement with the ATF. Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images Hide caption

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Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images

Senator Angus King, I-Maine, has reportedly spoken out against Chipman’s endorsement with the ATF.

Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images

Chipman could be confirmed without a Republican vote. But not all Democrats have supported him.

Maine Senator Angus King, a political independent sitting down with the Democrats, is one on the fence.

King’s office has not responded to requests for comment. But Politico reported earlier this month that he had told his Senate colleagues and the White House that he would likely vote against Chipman’s confirmation.

Gun security activists want to change that. That month, King met with activist Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was killed in the 2018 shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Proponents hope personal requests like this one will calm King and draw him closer to supporting Chipman.

But King is not alone. A few other party moderates were silent as to whether they would support Chipman for the role at ATF.

Senator Joe Manchin in particular, a polarizing figure on the left from gun-friendly West Virginia, is a critical swing. He has left the party line before and taken on important issues such as voting rights and the filibuster against the Democrats.

Chipman’s affirmation is an important part of Biden’s broader gun violence agenda.

So far, the President has signed a number of executive actions to strengthen the Arms Act, but the powers of such orders only go so far. And Biden wants someone in law enforcement to pay their full attention to ending what he calls the “international embarrassment” of the American gun violence epidemic.

A Senate-approved leader in 15 years

Heyne, the Brady vice president, pointed to the demand that an ATF director even have to seek confirmation from the Senate as evidence that the system is rotting. It was only with the re-approval of the Patriot Act in 2006 – the controversial anti-terror law originally introduced after the September 11th terrorist attacks – that a potential ATF director had to take his case to the Senate. Prior to that year, the role was an appointment to president.

Since then, the agency has been known to have gone for years without a confirmed guide.

The last – and only – successful confirmation of posting was B. Todd Jones in the Obama administration in 2013. That year broke a seven-year streak in which the agency went without a confirmed leader.

Even Republican candidates have been voted through by the Senate. Former President Donald Trump, who often bragged about his own gun ownership and promised to relax gun restrictions, saw his candidate Chuck Canterbury walled in by Republicans who said the former head of the Fraternal Order of Police was too soft on gun rights.

In the end, Trump withdrew the nomination and the agency moved on with an assistant director instead.

“All we ask is a qualified leader who is permanently endorsed by the only agency that has oversight for the arms industry,” Heyne said. “You’d think it would be that easy, but instead the gun lobby managed to change that narrative in such a daunting way.”

As has been the case for the past 15 years, the agency is currently overseen by an Acting Director, Marvin Richardson.

While that title essentially gives Richardson the powers of a permanent director without a sustained director, the volatility of the role can severely limit an individual’s ability to make meaningful, long-term change.

The deputy director title also lacks some degree of political legitimacy and can create the impression of a taxless agency prone to unpredictability.

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