Joe Biden this week took two of his biggest steps yet toward addressing the “epidemic” of gun violence plaguing the nation. First, his administration announced a long-anticipated crackdown on “ghost guns”—homemade firearms, assembled with kits that cannot be traced and which have shown up at crime scenes across the country. Then, he nominated former federal prosecutor Steve Dettelbach to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives—the agency that has been without a Senate-confirmed director since 2015.
The pair of moves, which he announced in the Rose Garden on Monday, were hailed as a “major victory” by gun control advocates. “It’s important to recognize the real progress we’re making,” says Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts, who attended the Rose Garden announcement. “President Biden has heeded our call for action.”
But the Justice Department’s ability to effectively enforce the new ghost gun rule—and the administration’s prospects for combating the violence Biden has previously described as a “national embarrassment”—depends on whether he will be able to navigate Dettelbach through the choppy political waters that sunk his previous ATF nominee, David Chipman.
“Hopefully lessons have been learned,” says Chipman, an unapologetic gun control advocate who believes the administration underestimated the attacks he’d face from the gun lobby and failed to sufficiently defend him. “We need a confirmed director of ATF. We need someone who supports the agenda of the president of the United States. It’s absolutely critical.”
ATF, an agency key to regulating firearms, has had only one confirmed director since 2006; B. Todd Jones, a Barack Obama appointee, was approved as permanent director in 2013 and led the agency until 2015, when he was hired as chief disciplinary officer of the National Football League. ATF has been led by acting directors ever since, which has left the agency “severely handicapped” in carrying out its work, according to Kris Brown, president of gun control advocacy group Brady. “Agencies need leaders,” Brown says, describing the potential of a Dettelbach confirmation as a “really, really big deal.”
“Not having a strong ATF director has been a gift to the gun lobby. It’s really allowed the gun manufacturers to run roughshod and not be regulated,” adds Watts, who founded her group in the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting that left 26 people dead, including 20 children.
But Dettelbach will have an uphill battle for confirmation, and it remains to be seen if he’ll win.
Biden originally nominated Chipman, a veteran of the ATF and a senior policy adviser at Giffords, the gun control group cofounded by former Democratic representative Gabby Giffords, who survived an assassination attempt in 2011. While gun control advocates cheered that selection, progun groups piled on the pick, mounting an intense campaign to tank his nomination. That included the bogus claim that Chipman was the man pictured in a widely circulated photograph standing before a pile of rubble following the 1993 raid on the Branch Davidians compound in Waco, Texas. It wasn’t him, as Larry Keane, an executive at the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a group that posted the image, later acknowledged. “The moment we found out that it was in fact not him, we pulled it from our website,” Keane told The New York Times last year. “If I had known it wasn’t him, we would never have used the photograph.”
But the gun lobby continued to hammer Chipman, a gun owner himself, over his fierce gun control advocacy, strident criticism of the firearms industry, and occasionally disparaging comments regarding gun owners themselves. (The conservative media last year pounced on remarks he made in a 2020 interview likening those who were new to purchasing guns in the early days of the pandemic to “Tiger King.”) Republicans uniformly opposed Chipman, but he could have been confirmed had Democrats stuck together and gave Vice President Kamala Harris the tie-breaking vote. But it became apparent that he wouldn’t have the votes after Independent senator Angus King, who caucuses with the Democrats, and other moderates declined to support the nomination; Biden withdrew the pick in September of last year.
“People who haven’t worked daily in the gun-violence-prevention movement don’t understand the forces that oppose any efforts to prevent gun violence,” Chipman says. “The White House and DOJ have to do a much more aggressive job promoting their nominee.”