Joe Biden’s choice to lead the federal agency that will play a crucial role in his firearms policy is a gun owner and longtime law enforcement official.
But David Chipman, whom Biden nominated Thursday as director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, has also pushed for a litany of firearms restrictions. And that’s likely to spark a brutal nomination fight, making it an early test of the president’s commitment to pushing his gun policy agenda.
Chipman supports banning assault weapons, limiting high-capacity magazines, expanding background checks and ending the fairly broad liability shield that firearms manufacturers enjoy. And he has called for ATF, where he worked for more than two decades, to increase inspections of federally licensed gun dealers and use other tools to help curb what he calls a national epidemic.
“Our weak firearms laws make it all too easy for guns to fall into the wrong hands — and since Congress has failed to address these gaps legislatively, ATF must chart a new course to combat the scourge of gun violence,” he wrote in an op-ed in POLITICO in 2013.
Chipman’s numerous interviews, statements and testimony has earned him praise among advocates who have long pushed for firearms restrictions, as well as ATF veterans, who described his nomination as historic.
“This is the first person nominated who can somehow be connected to gun control advocacy of any kind,” said William Vizzard, who spent nearly three decades at ATF. “I’m sure he’ll be attacked right off the bat….ATF has always been very circumspect about showing any real commitment to gun control. They’ve been very cautious.”
But those same attributes seem destined to cause difficulties in the Senate, split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, which will consider his nomination. Chipman, likely realizing that, recently made his Twitter account private. In previously archived tweets, Chipman retweeted criticisms of former President Donald Trump and former New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, specifically on firearms issues.
Moderate senators, including Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), did not put out a statement on the nomination or respond to requests for comment. The White House gave some lawmakers advance notice of Chipman’s nomination, a Hill aide said, but they did not respond to questions about whether it alerted Manchin or Sinema. Late Thursday, Manchin told CNN that Chipman is “well qualified” but said he needed more information.
Biden announced Chipman’s nomination at the White House Thursday as part of a package of executive actions to curb gun violence that was immediately praised by groups pushing for restrictions and criticized by organizations that oppose changes.
At ATF, Chipman helped with high-profile cases, including bombings at the World Trade Center in 1993 and Oklahoma City in 1995, and was eventually named the special agent in charge of firearms programs.
After he left government, Chipman worked at Everytown for Gun Safety, an organization that pushes for gun restrictions, and ShotSpotter, a company advocating for changes in policing strategies. He is now a senior adviser at Giffords, a group founded by former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) after she was shot and seriously wounded. He will remain at Giffords until his confirmation vote.
On his Linkedin profile, Chipman lists himself as a “violent crime reduction strategist” and “gun violence prevention expert.” He says he is “dedicated to developing, implementing and evaluating firearms violence reduction strategies aimed at making neighborhoods safe.”
“He's the right person, at this moment, for this important agency,” Biden said of Chipman at his Rose Garden announcement, with Giffords seated in the audience alongside other gun violence survivors, members of Congress and advocates. Biden supports many of the policies Chipman has publicly backed, including banning assault weapons and expanding background checks, which polls show are popular with a majority of Americans.
Criticism from the right was swift. National Rifle Association spokesperson Amy Hunter said the appointments of Attorney General Merrick Garland and Chipman show “Biden has made clear his sights are set on restricting the rights of law-abiding gun owners while ignoring criminals and foregoing substantive measures that will actually keep Americans safe.”
Dudley Brown, president of the National Association for Gun Rights, said Chipman “shills for gun confiscation with Gun Control Inc.,” and that he has “embraced every hair-brained gun control scheme proposed.”
And Newsmax TV host John Cardillo tweeted, “Any Republican Senator who votes to confirm Chipman as ATF boss goes to the top of our ‘must primary’ list.”
Biden aides and allies are hopeful Chipman can win narrow approval in the Senate. But White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to say whether she is confident he could be confirmed in response to questions Thursday.
“That’s up to the Senate,” she said. “The president gets to pick who he wants to nominate. He’s nominated someone who is qualified. He has decades of experience. He is a gun owner himself and it’s up to the Senate to decide if they move forward his nomination.”
Chipman did not respond to messages. The White House and Giffords did not make him available for comment.
Chipman has written and talked extensively about gun safety, sometimes mentioning his own work and life.
“I’m also a proud gun owner who has sometimes been mischaracterized as a gun grabber, first in my career in service to my country and now as an advocate for gun safety,” he wrote last year in an op-ed in the Roanoke Times.
In the same piece, Chipman, who lives in Virginia, criticized law enforcement officials in the state who declared their localities “Second Amendment sanctuaries” that were exempt from gun laws passed by state legislators in Richmond.
“The Second Amendment envisions firearms as being ‘well regulated,’ and individual sheriffs aren’t entitled to decide whether a particular regulation is constitutional — that’s the job of the courts,” he wrote.
In other comments, Chipman expressed support for so-called red flag laws that would permit courts to order the temporary removal of firearms from a person who may be a danger to themselves or others; for regulating the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle in the same way as machine guns; and for continuing to regulate gun silencers.
At a congressional hearing in 2019 following back-to-back mass shootings in Ohio and Texas, Chipman repeatedly described the balance needed between the rights of individuals to own guns versus the right of individuals to be safe.
“Our nation's current gun violence crisis has made two things very clear: one, it is far too easy for violent people to get their hands on violent weapons,” he said. “Two, the American people overwhelmingly want Congress to act now to make their communities safer.”
But in an undated PowerPoint presentation, Chipman advised fellow advocates for firearms restrictions to focus on policies that most Americans can support.
“Gun rights advocates want you to talk about guns — not preventing gun violence,” he said. “Always pivot to reasonable policy solutions supported by the majority of Americans.”
ATF has had mostly acting directors since the position became Senate-confirmed in 2006. Todd Jones was confirmed as ATF director in 2013 after a years-long stint as acting director. If confirmed, Chipman would be the first permanent director since 2015.
“David Chipman spent a quarter of a century serving his country and fighting for safer communities at ATF, busting gun trafficking operations and investigating horrific bombings and arsons,” Jones said. “His decisions affected the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of agents, yet he never wavered in his conviction or leadership abilities.”
Daniel Payne, Betsy Woodruff Swan and Burgess Everett contributed to this report.
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