The confirmation of David Chipman to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is increasingly in peril.
And now gun violence survivors and activists are going public with their long-simmering private frustrations, saying President Joe Biden could have done more.
In half a dozen interviews, those advocating for Chipman’s confirmation complained that Biden and his top aides have not leaned enough on Democratic senators to get them to support the confirmation.
“The White House has really dropped the ball here and if Chipman is not confirmed that will be a significant letdown to survivors of gun violence across the country — and will have the effect of undermining their effort to reduce gun homicides,” said Igor Volsky, executive director of the advocacy group Guns Down America. “Biden told us during the campaign trail that this is a priority and the administration insists that he is in charge of driving this issue. He needs to step on the accelerator.”
Frustrations became evident during a Zoom call on Thursday afternoon with Cedric Richmond, senior adviser to the president and director of the White House Office of Public Engagement — the latest in months of meetings in which advocates have brought up Chipman’s nomination.
According to two people familiar with the call, a small group of survivors and those pushing firearms restrictions urged the White House to be more aggressive on the nomination. They also encouraged the administration to support ending the filibuster to allow firearms legislation to more easily pass the evenly-divided Senate, the people said.
Activists and survivors say that they recognize that the president’s time has been occupied by weighty items like the fast-spreading Delta variant of the Covid-19 virus and major social and infrastructure spending plans. But they argue that more political capital could have been spent on such a critical component of the administration’s gun agenda, and that it should not have fallen so much on the Department of Justice and activists themselves to make the case for Chipman. Garland has reached out to several senators to ask for their support, according to the Justice Department.
“I appreciate and respect all of the work that the White House is doing on infrastructure and Covid,” said Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter, Jaime, was killed in the Parkland, Fla., high school shooting in 2018. “However, the escalating gun violence in this country is equally important. And the confirmation of David Chipman to be the ATF director … matters as much as everything else that they are working on, and I hope they understand that.”
Chipman’s nomination is in jeopardy after Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine and a member of the Democratic Caucus, signaled to both the Biden administration and his Democratic colleagues that he is not supportive of the nominee. King is under pressure from gun rights groups, including the Sportsmans’ Alliance of Maine, to oppose Chipman.
King told colleagues in the past week that he is currently a “no” on the nomination, according to a Democratic senator. He also told the White House in recent days that he is unlikely to vote for Chipman, according to two others familiar with the discussions. All of those sources cautioned that King could change his mind.
In response to the King news, White House press secretary Jen Psaki has stressed disappointment that Republicans have opposed Chipman “in lockstep,” thereby requiring that all 50 caucusing Democrat senators support his nomination. Advocates have expressed a desire for the president to ramp up the pressure directly on King. Biden and King had a recent conversation in which Chipman did come up, but only as part of a larger discussion, according to two people familiar with the call.
The White House held a Zoom call with some groups Wednesday to talk about Biden’s plan to curb violence across America’s cities, but aides didn’t mention Chipman’s nomination and advocates were frustrated that they were not given the chance to ask questions, according to two people familiar with the meeting.
“There is a ton of frustration among the large gun violence prevention groups that it’s not a priority,” an advocate said.
After the White House was contacted for this piece, another gun safety group, Everytown for Gun Safety, reached out to praise the administration for being “the strongest gun safety administration in history” and for “fighting for David Chipman … in the face of a torrent of lies and disinformation from the gun lobby.” Shortly after, Peter Ambler, executive director for Gifford’s, another gun safety group, sent a statement saying “President Biden has made good on his promise to combat our nation’s gun violence crisis by laying out concrete steps we can take to save lives.” Ambler added that Biden’s nomination of Chipman underscored the president’s “belief that a component of the administration’s gun violence prevention agenda is a strong leader at the ATF.”
An administration official said the White House has worked to build support for Chipman’s confirmation among a range of leaders and organizations, including gun violence prevention groups, law enforcement organizations and others. The official noted that Richmond “reiterated that Chipman’s confirmation is a priority” on Thursday’s call. Biden and administration officials, including Attorney General Merrick Garland and Psaki, have pushed for confirmation during public remarks around the president’s crime and gun agenda.
The Department of Justice has arranged and prepared Chipman for one-on-one meetings with 17 senators, according to a DOJ official. Multiple people in the department’s legislative affairs office are working on the confirmation, and have helped coordinate meetings with law enforcement organizations and gun safety groups, the official said.
The White House commented for this piece after publication.
“President Biden knows that having strong leadership at ATF is vital to cracking down on gun crime and keeping our communities safe – that’s why he moved historically quickly to nominate David Chipman to lead the Bureau and it’s why he’s had his team work hard both on Capitol Hill and behind the scenes to build support for his confirmation,” said White House spokesman Mike Gwin.
Still, some advocates said it remained unclear to them, months into the confirmation fight, what the White House was doing in terms of congressional outreach. Absent a fuller court press from the White House, activists have pushed the Chipman nomination themselves. In a meeting Wednesday, Po Murray, who chairs the Newtown Action Alliance, which formed after the 2012 school shooting in Connecticut, and Guttenberg asked King to meet again with Chipman as well as more gun violence survivors.
“We will continue to encourage Senator King to speak to survivors and families, and we’ll also encourage the White House to engage with Senator King,” Murray said.
King’s office didn’t respond to questions about those requests.
Two other Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana, said this week they remained undecided on Chipman’s nomination. But advocates pushing for Chipman’s nomination who are in touch with Senate offices say they believe that both will vote for confirmation. Biden and Tester have spoken about Chipman, among other issues, according to one person familiar with the call. Manchin hosted a virtual town hall with Chipman focused on gun rights with West Virginia constituents.
King’s vote is all the more important because moderate Republicans, including Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, oppose Chipman’s nomination.
Senate leadership has acknowledged that Chipman doesn’t yet have the votes for final confirmation. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved his nomination along party lines, but Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer hasn’t scheduled a vote to discharge him from committee.
Biden has announced several executive actions to curb gun violence as well as money devoted to try to prevent community violence that have been widely praised by activists, but some of them say the White House has not gone far enough on the issue.
“We thought that once we elected a gun safety president and gun safety majorities in the House and the Senate that this new federal administration … would make gun violence prevention a top priority,” said an advocate in touch with the White House. “And they’ve done a great job on the funding initiative but I just thought that the president would use political capital just in general to pass legislation … Somebody that’s all in.”
Chipman, a senior policy adviser at Giffords, previously served more than two decades at the ATF. He favors 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 to increase inspections of federally licensed gun dealers and use other tools to help curb what he calls a national epidemic.
The Senate has confirmed only one ATF nominee, B. Todd Jones in 2013, a sign of how controversial the position is.
“We support strong leadership at ATF,” said Tony Montalto, who founded the group Stand With Parkland after his daughter, Gina, died in the Parkland shooting. “Progress is hard, and our government depends on compromise. And I think this is something that people forget, we all become so focused on one issue, we forget that we need compromise to make things work.”
Tina Sfondeles contributed to this report.