By Larry Keane
President Joe Biden’s nominee to head the bureau that has regulatory authority over the firearm industry admitted to the U.S. Senate he would ban firearms over enforcing laws a week ago and the question lingers. Does David Chipman have the votes?
Here’s where it stands now.
Chipman, who until recently was a lobbyist for Giffords gun control group, was nomination by President Biden to be the director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). He faced withering questions from Republican senators for his past statements, testimony and his acrimony toward gun owners. He largely spent the hearing attempting to explain away how public statements he made to media were taken out of context and admitting to wanted to ban rifles that he couldn’t clearly define.
The hearing was a chance for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee to gain a sense if he’s fit for the job. The ATF director role is a Senate-confirmed position, part of the Senate’s “advise and consent power” for key political appointees to public positions. Chipman’s nominated must first be voted on by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which hasn’t yet set a date for the vote.
There are a couple of ways forward. First, the committee doesn’t have to set a date for a vote. That could be a signal from the committee to The White House that the nomination is doomed. President Donald Trump nominated Chuck Canterbury for the same position and his nomination was never considered by the committee and eventually withdrawn by the Trump administration.
That’s an unlikely scenario here. President Biden is being pressured by gun control groups, including Giffords and Everytown for whom he also lobbied, to push Chipman’s nomination through. Giffords began lobbying the White House to appoint Chipman almost immediately after the election last November. There’s nothing more these antigun groups would like to see than a figurehead that would slash and burn the firearm industry. That would suggest that senators on the committee will have to cast their votes. With the Senate split 50-50, the committees are also split 50-50. That could mean Chipman’s nomination could end up in a tie in the committee but that wouldn’t end his nomination.
The Senate’s power sharing agreement would mean that should Chipman’s nomination end in a tie at Senate Judiciary Committee, Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) would be required to transmit a notice of the tie to the Secretary of the Senate. That would allow Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to make a “motion to discharge” the nomination from the committee, allowing all senators to vote on whether the full Senate should consider the nomination. That could be a litmus test as to where Senators would eventually vote, but not necessarily. If the motion to discharge passes, the nomination would then immediately be put on the Senate calendar.
That would mean Chipman’s nomination would require 50 votes, plus one. Given the Senate is split evenly, this would mean Vice President Harris would be the tie-breaking vote. Obviously, if given the chance, she would vote to confirm.
That makes knowing where the senators stand critical to protecting the firearm industry and the Second Amendment rights of all Americans.
Republican senators largely grilled Chipman on his support for banning AR-15 rifles, denigrating gun owners, admitting he thought law-abiding gun owners are potential criminals and his support of making it more difficult and costly for gun owners to protect their hearing. He also was taken to task for his support for a ban on any rifle with a detachable magazine with a chambering larger than .22-caliber only to later admit the firearm industry doesn’t market anything called an “assault rifle.” He told the senators he wants to ban so-called “assault rifles” but couldn’t define what that is and later contradicted his own previous Congressional testimony where he said he wanted to expand the National Firearms Act, not just enforce it.
That leaves senators outside the committee as the real question mark. So far, they’re staying mum. Chief among them might be Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) Sen. Manchin is one of the few moderate Democrats left and is already catching the ire of The White House for bucking the party line on other issues. West Virginia has a strong gun rights tradition, making him a key vote to protect Second Amendment rights. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) is a known moderate and a key vote in Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Her vote will be critical here too. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) voted “present” on Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation, but with slim margins in the Senate, Alaskans will be looking to her to protect their gun rights. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) is under pressure on Chipman’s vote. Montana Republican Attorney General Austin Knudsen led a letter signed by 21 Republican state attorneys general urging a “no” vote on Chipman and reminded Sen. Tester that Montana expects him to protect gun rights. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) is in a unique position. Like Sen. Manchin, she’s been singled out by President Biden for her independent streak. Chipman once collected a paycheck from Arizona’s Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, who leads the Giffords gun control group with his wife, former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Let Them Know
These are the senators that need to hear from their constituents. There’s nothing more effective than voters reaching out directly to their elected officials and informing them of their stance. It’s easy as clicking here, calling the Senate switchboard and asking to be connected to the senator that needs to hear from you. These senators are crucial to ensuring that special interest gun control doesn’t take the helm of the ATF and politicize the bureau that regulates the firearm industry. This would be putting the fox in charge of guarding the henhouse.
Larry Keane is Senior Vice President of Government and Public Affairs and General Counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearms industry trade association.