It’s a sad commentary on American public life when a morally, if not fiscally, bankrupt organization like the National Rifle Association — an outfit run by an assemblage of dodgy, self-enriching schemers — can still wield significant influence on public policy. But that is where we are in America. The NRA has mounted an advertising effort against David Chipman, President Biden’s nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade association for the firearms and ammunition industry, also opposes Chipman’s confirmation and has launched an ad campaign of its own.
The ads themselves are aimed at pressuring Democrats like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Jon Tester of Montana, and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, along with Angus King, independent of Maine, not to support Chipman.
The particular criticisms they level against Chipman are that the former longtime ATF agent supports a ban on military-style assault rifles as well as limits on high-capacity magazines, and that he is currently in the employ of Giffords, the organization started by former congresswoman Gabby Giffords to advance gun safety after she was badly wounded in a mass shooting a decade ago.
It is hardly outlandish to support a ban on assault-style weapons — the United States had one from 1994 to 2004 — or high-capacity magazines, which enable massive carnage. But regardless of Chipman’s personal views, ATF can’t impose bans or restrictions without congressional approval, so those really aren’t particularly pertinent objections.
In one especially witless comment, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa recently maintained that “many see that putting a committed gun control proponent, like David Chipman, in charge of ATF is like putting a tobacco executive in charge of the Department of Health and Human Services, or antifa in charge of the Portland police department.”
But those examples are precisely the opposite of what’s happening here, where someone qualified to regulate an industry is being put in charge of doing so rather than someone whose interests run counter to the purpose of the agency. Grassley’s comparison presupposes that the true purpose of ATF is somehow to advance the interests of the gun industry and gun zealots rather than, among other things, to inspect and oversee federally licensed gun dealers, help enforce federal gun laws, and investigate gun obtainment and use by violent offenders, career criminals, gangs, and narcotics traffickers, as well as arms traffickers.
The ATF, of course, has long been the target of the NRA’s ire. With the help of its accomplices in Congress, the gun lobby has managed to keep the agency underfunded and hobbled by restrictions. The agency has had a Senate-confirmed — that is, nonacting — director for only two years in the last decade and a half.
As The New York Times recently reported: “At the NRA’s instigation, Congress has limited the bureau’s budget. It has imposed crippling restrictions on the collection and use of gun-ownership data, including a ban on requiring basic inventories of weapons from gun dealers. It has limited unannounced inspections of gun dealers.”
John Rosenthal, cofounder of Stop Handgun Violence, recalls that when, during the Clinton presidency, the ATF issued a report that identified a small percentage of federally licensed dealers as the source of a disproportionate number of guns used in crimes, instead of galvanizing congressional resolve to crack down on those rogue dealers, the report triggered a gun-lobby backlash that resulted in a heightened effort to hamstring the agency.
With his long years of experience and deep knowledge of the agency, Chipman is uniquely qualified to “hold federally licensed gun dealers and the gun industry accountable, without any infringement on the Second Amendment,” says Rosenthal.
At a time when this nation is suffering from a plague of gun violence, Chipman is exactly the type of person the nation needs at ATF. Once an avuncular gun-safety group, the NRA has become extremist and conspiratorialist over the last half-century, forever trying to incite hysteria among its members with wild-eyed charges. Senators need to recognize its campaign against Chipman for what it is: a continuation of the gun lobby’s long effort to hobble legal and legitimate gun-safety efforts — and at a time when an effective ATF is desperately needed.
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