President Biden’s decision to pull David Chipman as his nominee to run the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is a high-profile victory for pro-gun groups and a defeat for gun control advocates in what will likely be this year’s most consequential gun debate.
The withdrawal shows that even under Democratic control of Congress and the White House, efforts to tighten restrictions on guns face an uphill climb.
Chipman’s nomination fell not just because of opposition from Republicans, but also moderate Democrats.
Biden pulled Chipman’s nomination after Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who caucuses with Democrats, privately said he wouldn’t support him. Democrats had no room for defections in the 50-50 Senate, and Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) also declined to endorse Chipman.
It’s just the latest defeat for gun control advocates.
Senate Democrats earlier this year failed to round up enough votes for a House-passed bill to expand background checks on gun sales, leaving gun control advocates with little to look forward to this Congress.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that Biden will announce a new ATF nominee “at an appropriate time.”
But gun control groups reacting to Chipman’s withdrawal weren’t hiding their disappointment.
“The Senate had the opportunity to confirm a supremely qualified and dedicated public servant as ATF director. Instead, the gun lobby’s campaign of baseless conspiracy theories and outright lies succeeded in blocking him,” Giffords Executive Director Peter Ambler said in a statement.
Chipman, a former ATF agent, was a lobbyist for the gun control group Giffords, which is named after former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was gravely wounded when an armed man started shooting at a meet-and-greet in her district a decade ago.
Pro-gun groups led an expensive lobbying campaign against Chipman, warning centrist senators that his confirmation would politicize the agency and prompt Republicans to respond by nominating a gun industry lobbyist for the ATF post in the future.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) aired a multimillion-dollar ad campaign in the home states of King, Manchin and Tester urging them to oppose Chipman. The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the gun industry’s trade group, held a virtual fly-in to shore up opposition from centrist senators.
Chipman’s failure shows such efforts can get traction. Former President Trump won Montana and West Virginia in last year’s presidential race, though he was defeated by President Biden in King’s Maine.
“This critical win is thanks to NRA members who flooded their senators’ offices with texts, emails, letters and phone calls voicing their opposition to Chipman’s nomination,” Jason Ouimet, executive director of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, said in a statement.
Efforts to oppose Chipman by organizations that typically avoid high-profile gun debates is another cause for concern for gun control advocates.
The National Sheriffs’ Association opposed Chipman’s nomination, decrying his gun control activism. And more than a dozen hunting groups sent a letter to lawmakers expressing concern that Chipman would “take proactive steps to impede gun ownership, hunting and recreational shooting in a manner that detrimentally impacts wildlife conservation and management.”
“There was opposition not just from Second Amendment organizations and members of the industry, but also many conservation and hunting groups,” said Larry Keane, the lead lobbyist at NSSF. “Normally, they would not weigh in on an ATF nominee. I think that was very impactful for Manchin and King.”
Giffords, which continues to employ Chipman as a senior policy adviser, said that Biden’s nominee faced a “barrage of lies and misinformation” from the pro-gun groups. Giffords had been pushing for a quick confirmation, noting that the ATF has gone without a Senate-confirmed director for six years, hurting its ability to enforce gun laws.
Biden has delivered victories for gun control advocates through a series of executive actions to crack down on gun trafficking that led to an increase in gun violence in major U.S. cities. In June, the Biden administration unveiled a “zero tolerance” policy to take federal licenses away from gun dealers that sell firearms to individuals who are prohibited from purchasing one.
Zack DiGregorio, national press secretary at Everytown for Gun Safety, said that despite Chipman’s defeat, the ATF will continue its efforts to thwart gun trafficking and reign in “ghost gun” manufacturers and dealers under President Biden.
“While it is disappointing that the gun lobby and their allies in Congress — who represent a minority of Americans — continue to sabotage law enforcement and fuel our nation’s gun violence crisis, they will not be able to stop our movement,” DiGregorio said in an email.
Gun control groups are far more influential — and well funded — than they were in previous years, slowly catching up to pro-gun organizations that held a tight grip on Washington lawmakers for decades.
But despite spending tens of millions of dollars each election backing congressional candidates, they’ve made little headway in Congress.
In March, the House passed two gun measures, including a bill to expand background checks to cover all gun sales that won the support of eight Republicans and all but one Democrat. The legislation remains stalled in the Senate amid opposition from GOP senators and Manchin.
That measure remains stalled despite broad public support. A March Morning Consult poll found that 84 percent of voters, including 77 percent of Republicans, backed expanded background checks on gun sales.