The backlash against President Joe Biden’s shakeup of ATF leadership is growing.
The Black Agents and Professionals Law Enforcement Association (BAPLEA) voiced its continuing support of recently-demoted ATF Acting Director Marvin Richardson on Monday. The group, which works with the ATF to support Black agents, said Richardson deserves to be ATF director. They said the 33-year ATF veteran, who is Black, has provided effective leadership to the agency and become widely admired by staff.
“The men and women of ATF have been fortunate to have Marvin (as he is affectionately known) as its Acting Director,” Constance Hester-Davis, BAPLEA President, said in a letter obtained by The Reload. “He is a career employee and servant leader who has put the needs of the agency and country first and foremost. BAPLEA commends Acting Director Marvin Richardson for his exemplary leadership to ATF and his extensive service to the United States of America.”
The ATF declined to comment on the statement. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
The statement of support comes shortly after the nation’s largest group for Black gun owners criticized Richardson’s demotion. On Friday, The National African American Gun Association said the leadership changes had “the appearance of being racially motivated and/or politically expedient.” President Biden passed over Richardson twice in favor of nominating White candidates with backgrounds in advocating for strict gun-control measures to be the agency’s permanent director. The additional slight of demoting him only a few months before his time as acting director is set to run out has added an extra layer of outrage which may end up sinking his latest attempt to fill the permanent director role.
The President moved to demote Richardson after he was accused of being too friendly with the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), a trade group for the gun industry. In March, The New York Times said Richardson appeared to be “an industry-friendly subordinate” who was “pumping the brakes” on President Biden’s plan to more strictly regulate gun companies and dealers. Gun-control group Newtown Action Alliance slammed Richardson for the agency attending the gun industry’s trade show even though it was an agency practice that long predated Richardson’s role as acting director. They applauded the President’s decision to replace him.
BAPLEA pushed back on the criticism that Richardson is too friendly towards the industry. Hester-Davis said Richardson fostered relationships with gun companies because that was the best approach to ensuring compliance and cooperation on investigations into the criminal use of guns.
“As the Assistant Director of ATF Enforcement and Programs Services from 2012 through 2020, he was responsible for the regulatory arm of the agency and worked to bridge the gap with industry leaders,” she said. “His understanding of the relationship between the firearms and explosives industry did not have to be acrimonious. It is not surprising the industry leaders have supported him and the job he has performed as ATF’s Acting Director.”
Several ATF officials who have spoken to The Reload in recent months share that view. They argue taking an antagonistic approach towards the industry would result in fewer tips and cooperation field agents rely on to make cases.
“A lot of the tips that we would get on illegal firearms activity from straw purchasers to traffickers came from dealers,” one ATF source, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the agencies practices, said. “The reality is just a very, very small percentage of gun dealers are bad. So, those partnerships are important, and Marvin really did a great job at nurturing those relationships.”
“There’s no system that alerts ATF,” a former agent told The Reload in July. “The person who has to alert us is that licensed dealer. If they don’t pick up the phone and call us, we’ll never know.”
It’s a view that has been increasingly rejected by gun-control activists, though. They want the agency to focus more on strictly monitoring gun dealers as a way to choke off supply to criminals. Some have argued the ATF having any relationship with the gun industry or gun-rights group is entirely unacceptable.
“The NSSF & NRA both spent $34 million since the Sandy Hook shooting to lobby against lifesaving gun laws,” Newtown Action Alliance tweeted earlier this month. “These groups profit from gun deaths. The @POTUS @WhiteHouse @TheJusticeDept @ATFHQ @DeptVetAffairs must stop working with these gun lobby groups.”
The agents who spoke with The Reload have said that is unworkable.
“We have to have that relationship,” the former agent said. “And how could you have a director who’s clearly anti-gun? You don’t have to be pro-gun, but you can’t have an anti-gun activist going after quote ‘bad dealers’ and who’s targeting the industry. That is going to have a chilling effect.”
The approach is one reason several ATF agents spoke out against President Biden’s first nominee to head ATF, David Chipman. He spent years working for gun-control groups before being picked to become director. His aggressive approach to regulating the industry, combined with a history of bombastic comments mocking gun owners, played a significant role in sinking his nomination.
Chipman also faced accusations of racial discrimination during his previous tenure inside the ATF. A Black agent claimed Chipman falsely accused him of cheating on a promotion assessment. He said he was eventually exonerated, but Chipman’s allegation diminished his career prospects and was motivated by racial animus.
“I believe it had to have been a bias,” the agent, who spent more than 25 years at the agency, said. “My answers were just ‘too good.’ And my thought is he just said, ‘this black guy could not have answered this well if he wasn’t cheating.'”
Chipman has admitted to initiating the cheating investigation but has vehemently denied it was due to race. The Department of Justice has also defended his record, saying “any allegations of bias against David Chipman are false.”
Steve Dettelbach, President Biden’s new ATF nominee, has not faced similar accusations but was recently caught up in a racially-charged renomination process. Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown (D.) planned to renominate Dettelbach as US Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio last year before receiving backlash from civil-rights activists. The Norman S. Minor Bar Association, a collection of African-American lawyers in Ohio, and Tamir Rice’s mother complained about the choice to renominate Dettelbach. They said the nomination should instead be subject to an open process where minority candidates are given an equal opportunity to fill the role, according to Cleveland.com. Samaria Rice told the paper “the community deserves a fair process,” not a “white, political insider” pick.
Senator Brown reversed course to pursue a broader search rather than recommending Dettelbach.
BAPLEA emphasized it partners with the ATF to ensure staff is given the training and support they need to carry out their jobs. Hester-Davis said the group’s top priority is ensuring African-American agents “have access to various levels of ATF’s leadership, mentorship, and guidance.” She said Richardson’s career is an example of what can be accomplished by that partnership.
“At the helm of ATF is Acting Director Marvin Richardson, a Special Agent with 33 years of federal service at the agency. Acting Director Richardson has worked in various capacities, to include, special agent, supervisor, manager and executive. Prior to his current position as Acting Director, Mr. Richardson served as the Deputy Director of ATF. His ascension to the position of Acting Director for ATF came as no surprise to employees. Acting Director Richardson’s vast knowledge and experience of regulatory and enforcement responsibilities makes him a unique asset and leader. Acting Director Richardson is known for his engaging personality and judicious insight. He is a leader who believes in doing the right thing all the time.”
Hester-Davis went further and offered her personal endorsement of his work with the agency.
“Serving as the President of BAPLEA, I know Marvin to be a law enforcement leader with an uncompromising passion for justice, equity, and the rule of law,” she said.