Moderate senators from either side of the aisle who will ultimately decide the fate of President Biden’s ATF nominee kept their cards close to the chest after Wednesday’s heated Judiciary Committee hearing.
Senators Kyrsten Sinema (D., Ariz.), Susan Collins (R., Maine), and Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska) did not respond to requests for comment. Senators Joe Manchin (D., W. Va.), Jon Tester (D., Mont.), and Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) said they are still closely examining Chipman’s record.
“Senator Toomey has not yet made a decision regarding David Chipman’s nomination to lead the ATF,” Steve Kelly, Toomey’s spokesperson, told The Reload.
Chipman repeatedly apologized during the hearing for his comments mocking new gun owners, spreading a lie about helicopters being shot down during the ATF’s Waco siege in 1993, and saying silencer reform only benefited criminals and gun lobbyists. He also stood by his contention that sales of “assault weapons” should be banned and current owners should be forced to register them with the ATF during the hearing but refused to offer a definition for what “assault weapons” actually are. His refusal to define the term led to several heated exchanges with Republicans on the committee, but his support for banning and registering them also sets him far apart from moderate Senate Democrats.
Asked if Manchin supports the policy Chipman championed during the hearing, the senator’s communications director Sam Runyan pointed to Manchin’s votes against previous “assault weapons” bans and ammunition magazine limits. But she told The Reload she did not have a statement on how Manchin will vote on Chipman or when he plans to meet with him.
Senator Tester’s office said he is still weighing Chipman’s experience as an ATF agent with his positions on gun laws to determine if he will vote for him.
“As a proud gun owner, Senator Tester believes ATF needs a strong leader to support the agency’s law enforcement mission,” Roy Loewenstein, Tester’s press secretary, told The Reload. “Senator Tester will continue to review David Chipman’s record and testimony to ensure he will support our brave law enforcement officers and respect Montanans’ Second Amendment rights.”
Pressure on these senators is intensifying. Gun-control activists want Chipman confirmed so he can beef up the agency’s enforcement efforts against the gun industry and oversee President Biden’s expansion of the agency’s authority to regulate what constitutes a firearm. Gun-rights activists and the gun industry warn putting a gun-control activists in charge of a regulatory agency could severely damage its relationship with gun makers and gun owners alike.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the gun industry’s trade group, has also met directly with Manchin and Murkowski on Chipman’s nomination. The group shared with each senator polling they commissioned from the firm Cygnal showing a majority of likely voters in Arizona, West Virginia, and Montana as well as a plurality in Maine opposed the nomination when told Chipman worked for gun-control groups. Opposition increased after the respondents were told about Chipman’s previous comments, according to Cygnal.
“Chipman’s false claims about the ATF raid at Waco, support for the government forcibly closing firearms retailers during the pandemic, and mocking words about first-time gun buyers all garner a very negative response from voters,” the company said in its report. “Majorities of voters in West Virginia, Arizona, Maine, and Montana are less likely to support Chipman’s nomination after hearing each of these statements. The retailer shutdown message is particularly impactful among strong supporters of the Second Amendment in each state. After hearing these facts about Chipman’s record, opposition to his nomination increases by 7-10% in each state.”
The polling was conducted by phone, text, and email between May 4 and 6, with between 500 and 530 respondents in each state. The margin of error for each poll was 4.38 percent or lower and had a confidence interval of 95 percent.
Gun groups have also released dueling ads. The National Rifle Association spent $2 million on anti-Chipman ads in Maine, West Virginia, and Montana. At the same time, Everytown for Gun Safety, Giffords, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and the Community Justice Action Fund dropped $150,000 on an ad supporting Chipman that ran in the Washington, D.C. market.
A coalition of 20 state attorneys general, led by Montana’s Austin Knudsen (R.), sent a letter to senators Tuesday opposing Chipman’s nomination. Knudsen, a top prospect to run against Tester in 2024, went further on Wednesday.
“Americans deserve an ATF director that will crack down on violent criminals and criminal organizations – not law-abiding gun owners,” he said in a statement. “President Biden’s nominee clung to his position that commonly owned firearms should be taxed and registered in a federal database. Senator Steve Daines is standing with Montana gun owners and has said he will vote against David Chipman’s confirmation. Jon Tester must do the same if he supports the right to keep and bear arms.”