Pro-gun groups step up lobbying campaign against Biden ATF pick
David Chipman, President Biden’s pick to run the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), is facing intense opposition from gun rights groups that are pushing key senators to reject his nomination.
Chipman spent 25 years with ATF as a special agent. But pro-gun organizations are protesting his nomination over his support for stricter gun laws and previous work as a policy adviser for Giffords, a gun control group.
After launching a lobbying campaign with expensive ad buys ahead of Chipman’s confrontational confirmation hearing in late May, gun groups are now focused on moderates who could swing the outcome, namely Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.).
“It will come down to a couple of votes, and we all know who,” said Larry Keane, senior vice president and general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF).
Defeating Chipman’s nomination is a top priority for the lobbying group, which argues he would reinterpret existing laws to crack down on firearm manufacturers. During his Senate hearing, Chipman told lawmakers he supports banning the AR-15 rifle, but said he would stick to enforcing the laws on the books if confirmed.
Gun groups will need to sway at least one Democrat in the 50-50 Senate to defeat Chipman’s nomination. NSSF is trying to dissuade Democratic senators from supporting Chipman by making the case that his confirmation would lead to the politicization of ATF.
“It would set a very bad precedent for ATF as an organization, because I think it would be highly likely that a Republican administration would then nominate somebody for the position from the [gun] industry or the National Rifle Association,” Keane said. “Democrats would be screaming from the mountaintops if that happened, and they would be justified.”
NSSF frequently sues ATF to undo its gun regulations. But the industry group is telling lawmakers it opposes Chipman, not the agency itself, which it partners with on gun safety measures.
The group hasn’t opposed any other nominees for ATF director since the post became a Senate-confirmed position, and it supported former President Obama’s ATF nominee, B. Todd Jones, who was confirmed in 2013.
“That really caught people’s attention,” Keane said. “Senate offices said they weren’t aware of that fact and were thankful to know it. We cannot be cast as being reflexively opposed to whoever is nominated.”
NSSF held a virtual fly-in last month, connecting its members with senators from both parties, including Manchin and Murkowski.
The NRA has been taking a different approach, with a multi-million dollar ad campaign in senators’ home states over the past two months. The group said it will spend another $500,000 in the coming week on ads, mailers and in-person town halls to keep the pressure on moderate senators.
“Biden nominated radical gun control lobbyist David Chipman to lead ATF, but Sen. Joe Manchin can stop him,” a West Virginia NRA ad says. “Contact Joe Manchin’s office today and tell Joe to vote against Chipman’s nomination and reject President Biden’s extreme gun control agenda.”
Giffords and Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund responded last week, spending $150,000 to air TV and digital ads in D.C. featuring retired ATF agents.
“As a law enforcement officer, he believes in common sense gun crime prevention,” retired ATF special agent John Risenhoover says in the ad. “He’s one of the few people I know who has had such a varied career inside of ATF and it’s carried through there as he’s worked throughout his career to try to make something better for this nation.”
Giffords is touting endorsements from a number of law enforcement organizations, including the Police Executive Research Forum. Last month, 17 Democratic state attorneys general backed Chipman’s nomination.
“Chipman should have bipartisan support,” said Peter Ambler, executive director of Giffords. “He’s done a very good job of making his case. And at the end of the day, he’s exactly the person who should be in this position. He’s qualified, he’s experienced, he’s a gun owner himself.”
Giffords is pushing for a swift confirmation, stressing that the agency is in desperate need of a director after going without one for six years. Ambler said Chipman’s experience would help him hit the ground running and tackle key issues such as illegal gun trafficking.
“We’ve seen a devastating spike in gun violence, and the agency tasked with dealing with that epidemic of gun violence has been without confirmed leadership for 13 out of the last 15 years,” Ambler said. “That’s unacceptable. It’s an abdication of the federal government’s responsibility to provide for the public safety of its citizens.”
The nonprofit Gun Violence Archive, which tracks shootings nationwide, found that gun violence in the U.S. reached record levels through the first three months of the year. Biden, who called the epidemic of gun violence an “international embarrassment,” has said Chipman is a key player in his push to reduce gun deaths.
Gun control groups have increased their influence in Washington amid a surge of mass shootings over the last decade. But pro-gun groups still outspent them nearly five-to-one on lobbying last year, according to OpenSecrets.org. NSSF is the top lobbying spender through the first three months of 2021, shelling out nearly $1.1 million.
Chipman’s nomination is expected to make it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote, as the Senate’s few moderates don’t serve on the panel. The committee has not yet scheduled a vote.
On the Senate floor, pro-gun groups will need to win over at least one Democrat and every Republican to sink Chipman’s nomination.
Manchin hasn’t said how he would vote, but in April he told CNN that Chipman was “well qualified.” Tester, a supporter of gun rights, also hasn’t staked out a position on Biden’s nominee. Last week, Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen (R) and 20 other attorneys general urged Tester to vote against Chipman’s nomination.