Biden withdraws pick to run firearms agency after NRA pressure

Joe Biden said in a Thursday afternoon statement that he was no longer proposing David Chipman, a 25-year veteran of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) who has worked to tighten gun laws, as the agency’s next director, confirming an earlier Washington Post report.

The gun reform group Brady says Biden’s decision to bow to National Rifle Association (NRA) pressure and withdraw his nominee, a strong gun control advocate, to lead the agency enforcing federal firearms laws is “a shameful day for our country”.

The Guardian reported in July that Chipman’s nomination, which Biden announced in April, was in trouble, stalled by opposition from pro-gun Republicans in the US Senate and targeted by the NRA and industry lobbyists.

“He would have been an exemplary director of the ATF and would have redoubled its efforts to crack down on illegal firearms traffickers and help keep our communities safe from gun violence,” Biden’s statement said.

“Unfortunately, Republicans in Congress have made clear that they intend to use gun crime as a political talking point instead of taking serious steps to address it.”

A senior policy adviser at Giffords, an organisation that advocates for stricter gun laws, Chipman was always seen as a divisive choice. Two Democratic senators from moderate states, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Montana’s Jon Tester, refused to say if they would back him in a confirmation vote, while Angus King, an independent senator from Maine who caucuses with the Democrats, indicated that he was a “no”. All three would have been crucial in the divided 50-50 chamber.

Ultimately not even the intervention of the US attorney general, Merrick Garland, was able to save the administration from today’s humiliating climbdown, which leaves questions over the direction of the president’s agenda for tackling the “international embarrassment” of gun violence. The collapse of the nomination also leaves the ATF, which has not had a Senate-confirmed director since 2015, in limbo.

“It is hugely disappointing and unconscionable that 50 members of the US Senate as well as at least one senator who caucuses with the president’s party would deny President Biden his choice to lead the ATF,” Kris Brown, the Brady president, said in a statement.

“It is immoral and indefensible that the only agency with regulatory oversight over the gun industry has been permitted to persist for so many years without leadership, because of the outsized influence the gun industry has.”

The senators, Brown said, “have let their constituents down”.

The White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, confirmed Biden’s decision at a Thursday afternoon briefing, admitting that the administration: “Always knew this would be challenging.” A new nominee would be forthcoming “at an appropriate time”, she said.

Opponents of the nomination, meanwhile, were already celebrating. In its own statement, the NRA hailed it as “a critical win”, claiming that Chipman’s work with Giffords seeking to tighten gun laws “posed a grave threat to the second amendment”.

“Chipman was the wrong candidate for many reasons,” Jason Ouimet, executive director of the group’s institute for legislative action, said. “From an administration that claims it wants to be unifying, it could not have picked a more polarizing nominee. The position should be held by someone who can be trusted to work with gun owners, law enforcement and the firearms industry.

“Chipman’s record of support for radical gun control left no doubt he would not respect the rights of the American gun owner when overseeing the ATF.”

The NRA’s political allies also weighed in. Kristi Noem, the Trumpist Republican governor of South Dakota, tweeted: “Some good news … Chipman the ‘gun grabber’ is out. South Dakotans LOVE the 2nd Amendment. This is a great victory for all freedom loving Americans.”

Gun reform advocates, however, decried the move. Fred Guttenberg, an activist whose 14-year-old daughter was murdered in the 2018 Parkland high school shooting, said he was “truly upset”.

“[Chipman] is a good man and was the right person for the job. We have weak people serving in the Senate such as @SenAngusKing who chose to listen to ‘regulated industry.’ Sadly the White House failed to put up a fight on this,” Guttenberg said in a tweet.

Analysts say it reflects the huge political clout still wielded by the NRA, despite its bankruptcy and internal turmoil.

“The NRA as an organization is in tatters, but it still has an enormous membership. Democrats running for the Senate or House worry about being tarnished [as] anti-second amendment, the kind of damage that can defeat a Democrat in a close election,” said Larry Jacobs, director of the center for the study of politics and governance at the University of Minnesota.

“It’s just such a sad statement about America that even as there are weekly mass shootings we can’t even get approval for an administration official who would try to do something about it.”

Chipman is the second Biden choice to be withdrawn as a nominee for a cabinet position after Neera Tanden stepped back in March from seeking the budget office leadership role.

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