David Chipman Is Unfit to Lead the ATF

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David Chipman testifies during a House Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, September 25, 2019. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

The fate of David Chipman, President Joe Biden’s pick to run the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), is now in the hands of undecided moderate Democrats such as Senator Jon Tester and Senator Joe Manchin. If they’re interested in protecting the Second Amendment rights of their sizeable gun-owning constituencies, they will reject his nomination.

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After spending 25 years at the ATF, retiring as a special agent in 2012, Chipman found work as a high-profile and zealous anti-gun activist, working with numerous anti-gun outfits, including Giffords, where he is employed as a senior adviser. There is, of course, nothing inherently unethical about gun-control activism, even if we happen to disagree with the goals of the movement. Yet, it’s quite another story to empower such a political operative to run the agency tasked with upholding gun laws.

It was no accident that Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer combined Chipman’s confirmation hearing with that of three other nominees, limiting questioning from senators to only five minutes. The former agent has a long history of hyperbolic claims and outright falsehoods.

Though Chipman told the Senate Judiciary Committee he believes District of Columbia v. Heller codified the Second Amendment as an individual right — a view that isn’t shared by his bosses at Giffords — he’s had a weird way of showing it.

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In his writing, Chipman has framed gun ownership as a collective right. He still advocates for a complete ban on the country’s most popular semiautomatic rifles — guns that Heller would certainly classify as “in common use” by law-abiding citizens. Chipman advocates for policy that would compel millions of existing AR-15 owners who have already gone through background checks to register their weapons with the federal government — a prerequisite to gun confiscation.

Chipman has claimed that he supports bans on “assault weapons” because they are nearly “identical to those used by the military.” When Senator John Kennedy asked him to define what “assault weapon” meant — the guns he advocates we ban — Chipman would not, or could not, do so. Instead, he argued that the 1994 federal ban on assault weapons had “mixed results.” Studies, in fact, show that the ban had negligible, if any, effect on criminality, which dropped precipitously after the law sunsetted.

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But Chipman has not only proven antagonistic toward existing gun laws but law-abiding gun owners as well. During the COVID pandemic, the former agent urged American governors to unilaterally shut down gun shops, noting that “people who hoarded the guns might decide six months from now — once they see no zombies around, but they’ve run out of tuna and beef jerky — that they need the money to buy food.” When speaking about the recent spike in first-time gun ownership, Chipman compared buyers to the meth-smoking criminal Joe Exotic of Netflix fame — “they might think that they’re die-hard, ready to go, but unfortunately they’re more like Tiger King, and they’re putting themselves and their family in danger.”

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How can America gun owners trust someone to lead the ATF who speaks about them as if they were bumpkins? Even moderate Senator Susan Collins has expressed concern, and she was one of a handful of Republicans to support B. Todd Jones’s nomination — the only director in the history of the ATF to be Senate-confirmed. Collins warned that Chipman would likely do “significant damage” to the relationships the ATF has with sporting and gun groups.

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Chipman also occasionally allows his imagination to get the better of him when portraying America as a gun-crazed dystopia. In a recent Reddit AMA, Chipman, who worked on the prosecution during the Waco standoff trial, erroneously claimed that Branch Davidians had shot down two government helicopters with “.50 caliber Barretts” during a rant in which he also blamed our gun laws for the drug-cartel violence in Mexico.

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As with most executive-branch agencies, the ATF director has the latitude and power to create and enforce a new regulatory regime. Presidents should be afforded substantial leeway in nominating people they trust, but Chipman has shown that he is both professionally and temperamentally unfit for the job.

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