President Joe Biden’s effort to install a gun-control activist as the head of the agency that regulates the gun industry began in earnest this week. David Chipman has already stoked controversy in Washington, and he could prove one of the few Biden nominees to be shot down by the moderate senators who decide things in a 50-50 Senate.
Senators Kyrsten Sinema (D., Ariz.), Susan Collins (R., Maine), Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska), Joe Manchin (D., W. Va.), Jon Tester (D., Mont.), and Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) are all still on the fence. They will determine Chipman’s fate.
This nomination was a significant political risk for Biden, but confirming Chipman would be an even bigger risk for Senate Democrats. Chipman is strongly backed by gun-control groups who want the former ATF agent to strengthen the agency’s hand. But gun-rights groups and the industry are equally opposed to him out of concern he’ll aggressively expand the agency’s power.
The appointment of a literal gun-control activist to head the regulatory agency in charge of enforcing the nation’s gun laws will give gun voters another reason to turn out in the midterm elections. With Chipman’s longtime support for gun-control proposals far more strict than those supported by moderate senators, voting for him could specifically hurt them in their next reelection campaigns.
But the New York Times reported on Wednesday that Manchin and Sinema had told Democratic leaders they would vote for Chipman if his confirmation hearings go well. So, is that what happened during his first one in front of the Judiciary Committee?
Chipman stayed relatively calm in the face of withering condemnation from Republican committee members. However, he also stood by the political positions that put him at odds with the moderates. And he spent much of the hearing walking back or apologizing for controversial statements he made mocking new gun owners and lying about helicopters being shot down during the Waco siege, among other things.
“I’m sorry for any confusion I made” became a common refrain from Chipman.
How Senators react to his apologies and policies may not be enough to ensure his confirmation, though. It will likely come down to how their constituents react. Ultimately, pressure from constituents is the most important factor.
Confirming an ATF nominee is incredibly difficult even without the added baggage that Chipman brings along. Only one has been confirmed since confirmation was required for the position in 2006. Republican President Donald Trump couldn’t get his nominee through. He got a hearing but never got a vote after receiving a critical reception from Trump’s fellow Republicans.
And Republicans certainly aren’t being any friendlier to Biden’s pick than they were to Trump’s. But Chipman could still get through on a party-line vote, and that’s why it’s important to note that Democrats gave him a warm reception. Of course, none of the moderates that really matter are actually on the committee so it’s not a sure sign of how things will go.
No vote is scheduled on Chipman yet. If he gets one, that probably means Democrats have wrangled the votes, and Chipman will become the new director of the ATF. Moderates keeping their thoughts to themselves at this point means Chipman is very much alive. Since none of them have ruled out voting for him yet, odds are better than not he’ll be confirmed.
But things can change on a dime in Washington.
If he is confirmed, it will be a boon to President Biden’s gun-control agenda which he has already committed to enforcing to a large degree through unilateral executive action. Nominating Chipman was a gamble for Biden but one that could result in a dedicated ideologue heading the ATF and willing to stretch its authority to implement many of the restrictions Biden wants. If moderates in the Senate allow it that is.