Biden’s ATF nominee on shaky ground in Senate

Former ATF agent and Giffiords policy advisor David Chipman testifies before the House Judiciary Committee in 2019
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President Biden’s ATF nominee is in trouble in the Senate, where Republicans are opposing him over his work for gun control groups and a handful of Democrats have yet to offer their support.

David Chipman, Biden’s pick to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, is facing resistance from GOP senators who say his ties to the advocacy group Giffords make him too extreme to run a federal agency tasked with enforcing certain gun laws.

Chipman’s rocky road to a confirmation vote is complicating Biden’s plans for addressing rising crime and gun violence; the president highlighted Chipman’s nomination earlier this year as a key step to curbing mass shootings. The ATF vacancy was all the more glaring on Tuesday when Biden recognized the second anniversary of the shooting in El Paso, Texas, that left 23 dead.

The White House has remained supportive of Chipman’s nomination, even as several Democratic senators have not indicated whether they will support him, potentially dooming Chipman’s chances before he can even receive a vote.

Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Angus King (I-Maine) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) are among those who have not publicly said how they would vote.

“As a proud gun owner, Senator Tester believes ATF needs a strong leader to support the agency’s law enforcement mission,” a spokesperson for Tester said in a statement. “Senator Tester will continue to review David Chipman’s record and testimony to ensure he would support our brave law enforcement officers and respect Montanans’ Second Amendment rights.”

King, an Independent who caucuses with Democrats, “continues to review the nomination,” a spokesperson said.

Manchin’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Chipman was the policy adviser for Giffords, a gun violence prevention group, and worked at the ATF from 1988 to 2012.

Republicans are seeking a second hearing on Chipman’s nomination, a request Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has pushed back on. 

“David Chipman is a decent, honest, and conscientious public servant who is exceptionally qualified to lead ATF and should be confirmed. However, from the moment President Biden announced his nomination, Senate Republicans and opponents of commonsense gun safety measures have launched vitriolic, baseless attacks — even death threats—against him and his family,” Durbin told The Hill.

He said Senate Democrats have worked hard to confirm Chipman and noted that even though gun violence is considered by many to be an epidemic, the Senate hasn’t confirmed an ATF director since 2015.

“The string of efforts meant to unfairly derail his nomination and tarnish his record call into question what Republicans are choosing to prioritize: combating our nation’s gun violence epidemic, or appeasing the NRA?” Durbin said, referring to the National Rifle Association.

In a letter to Republicans on Monday, Durbin called the request for a second hearing the latest “in a string of efforts meant to unfairly derail” the nomination and hurt Chipman’s reputation.

Chipman’s nomination was advanced out of committee without any Republican votes, but with full support from Democrats.

During the hearing, Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), argued that Chipman has misled the public on modern sports rifles. Republicans also questioned his support for Congress to ban assault weapons and for universal background checks, two actions Biden backs.

Opponents of Chipman claim he once misplaced his weapon as an ATF agent and that he made racially discriminatory remarks when he was at the agency. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) questioned Chipman about receiving two Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints, and Chipman told the senator they were both resolved without any finding of discrimination.

Chipman made headlines during his confirmation hearing when he said he supports banning the AR-15. Cruz pushed back on the comment and said the AR-15 is the most popular rifle in America and that “it’s not a machine gun.”

Donald Trump Jr., who remains popular among the conservative base, has also made a concerted effort to drum up opposition to Chipman’s nomination, focusing on red-state senators like Tester and Manchin in particular.

Giffords called the efforts to oppose Chipman’s nomination a “campaign of lies” and condemned Republican senators for repeating them. 

“From the moment David Chipman was nominated, the corporate gun lobby began a campaign of lies aimed at him. Despite widespread law enforcement support for his nomination, despite spiking gun violence, Republican Senators repeated NRA talking points, showing that they care more about a monied special interest than public safety,” said Giffords Executive Director Peter Ambler in a statement.

“The gun lobby opposes a confirmed ATF Director because they know that a leader who enforces the laws on the books is bad for their business,” Ambler said.

The White House views Chipman as an integral part of its agenda. Press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters last week that Biden “felt quite confident” in Chipman’s “qualifications and his ability to lead the agency at a time where it hasn’t been led for many years.”

Psaki on Tuesday tweeted out an op-ed from The Washington Post editorial board arguing Chipman’s nomination is being held up by “gun advocates’ toxic obsession with firearms.”

Biden announced Chipman’s nomination in April as one of several steps he said his administration was taking to combat gun violence in the wake of mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder, Colo. Biden hailed Chipman as “the right person, at this moment, for this important agency.”

The six-year drought in confirming an ATF director reflects the sharp divisions between Republicans and Democrats over gun laws.

Congress has repeatedly tried and failed to pass tougher gun measures in the wake of repeated mass shootings over the last several years. Most recently, Biden called on lawmakers to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. But those calls have gone unheeded, while talks on smaller steps have gone nowhere.

Biden and Vice President Harris met with Latino leaders on Tuesday, when the president reiterated his call on Congress to work on gun safety laws, including a “ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines,” at the start of the meeting.

Earlier that day, the El Paso Times published an op-ed by Biden on the anniversary of the mass shooting, when a gunman targeting Latinos opened fire at a Walmart.

“And to the country, this somber day is a reminder of the unfinished work to heal the soul of this nation. Two years ago, a gunman armed with rage and rifle targeted the people of El Paso, and our most deeply held American values,” Biden wrote.

Tags Angus King Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Chuck Grassley Dick Durbin Donald Trump Jen Psaki Joe Biden Joe Manchin Jon Tester Ted Cruz
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