President Joe Biden’s choice to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, David Chipman, got a rough welcome Wednesday from Senate Republicans at a confirmation hearing, where he defended previous statements about guns and pushed back against a social media disinformation campaign.
“Buckle your seatbelt. You want to be the head of the ATF, hang on tight. They’re coming after you, buddy,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told Chipman at the beginning of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. “It’s going to be rough at times.”
The ATF is tasked with enforcing existing gun laws, and leadership of the agency has become a political hot potato — the Senate’s only managed to confirm one director for the agency in the past 15 years, who served under former President Barack Obama.
Chipman spent more than two decades with the ATF before going to work with Giffords, a group that advocates for stricter gun laws that is named for its founder, Gabby Giffords, a former lawmaker who was shot at a constituent event.
Chipman pushed back against a right-wing social media campaign that accused him of participating in the deadly ATF raid of a cult compound in Waco, Texas in 1993. The disinformation campaign included a picture, supposedly of Chipman, posing in front of the smoldering rubble of the Branch Davidian compound with a gun.
“This is not me,” Chipman said of the picture, and whoever the person is in the picture, “it’s not an ATF agent.”
Chipman said he was sent to Waco in May of 1993 — a month after the end of the deadly siege — to join the investigation into what went wrong. “One of the reasons I was selected is because I had no involvement in the actual case that was being examined,” Chipman said.
As he was testifying, reports started coming in of a mass shooting at a San Jose rail yard. At least eight people were killed.
“I’m sorry to hear that news. I wasn’t aware of that. If I’m confirmed as ATF director, one of our priorities at ATF will be focusing on gun-trafficking, the unlawful transfer of legal guns to criminals, and perhaps in this case, a crime like this could be prevented,” Chipman said when asked about the violence.
Republicans on the committee focused on Chipman’s work on gun control, and suggested it was disqualifying.
“Many see 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,” said the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.
Sen. Mike Lee pressed Chipman on comments he’d made opposing legislation that would loosen regulations for silencers for firearms, which the Utah Republican had sponsored. “You said, ‘The only people that benefit from this bill are gun lobbyists and criminals,'” Lee recounted.
“There are legitimate reasons someone might want to protect their hearing,” Lee said.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, focused on remarks Chipman had made supporting a ban on AR-15s, a measure that Biden has also called for.
“The AR-15 is one of, if not the, most popular rifles in America,” Cruz said. “Your public position is you want to ban AR-15s, is that correct?”
“I support a ban,” Chipman said, but “if I’m confirmed, I would simply enforce the laws on the books right now. There is no such ban on those guns.”
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., made clear after the hearing that he would oppose Chipman’s nomination, referring to him as “Joe Biden’s gun-grabbing nominee for the ATF.” “This is the last person who should be given any power,” Cotton tweeted.
The Senate is split 50-50 between the two political parities. Democrats could confirm Chipman without any Republican support if they remain united, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting a tie breaking vote.