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Former ATF Agent, Now A Gun Control Advocate, Is Biden's Nominee To Lead The Agency


President Biden has vowed to tackle what he calls an epidemic of gun violence in the country. The main agency that enforces federal gun laws is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Biden has tapped David Chipman, a former ATF agent-turned-gun control advocate, to lead the agency. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas reports.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: David Chipman knows the ATF. He worked for the bureau for more than two decades, beginning his career as a special agent in Norfolk, Va.

RON TARRINGTON: We did a lot of gun-running cases, buying cheap handguns from dealers in the Norfolk area of Virginia Beach and trafficking of guns to New York City.

LUCAS: That's Ron Tarrington. He was Chipman's supervisor in Norfolk in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He says Chipman was a smart and reliable investigator.

TARRINGTON: You know, just he was a good overall agent, period.

LUCAS: Chipman responded to two of the highest-profile terrorist attacks of the 1990s - the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York in 1993 and the blast two years later in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people. He was stationed in Waco, Texas, after the disastrous ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound and moved from there to the Detroit Field Division, where he was promoted to a supervisory role. Sarah Pelton started in Detroit at the same time.

SARAH PELTON: We had experience as agents, of course, but being a supervisor is a little different. You kind of have to take yourself out of the investigative process and work more towards being a great manager or leader, and Dave really excelled in that.

LUCAS: Over the years, Chipman rose through the ranks at ATF. He held senior positions at headquarters in Washington, D.C., and eventually retired from the agency in 2012. Since then, he's become an outspoken advocate for gun control. He currently works as a senior policy advisor at Giffords, the gun violence prevention group led by former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who was wounded in a 2011 mass shooting. Amber Goodwin worked with Chipman at Giffords before starting her own organization. She says Chipman has routinely shown up to hear from communities of color about gun violence and prevention.

AMBER GOODWIN: David is going to listen to people and listen to the people who are closest to the pain of this issue every single day.

LUCAS: She says having someone with Chipman's experience and background in charge at ATF would be transformative.

GOODWIN: He's not trying to control people's guns. He's actually trying to make all of our communities safer. And so I think once people hear directly from him, once people hear the facts and the evidence of how he's worked previously and what he's looking to do, they'll actually understand that David is perfectly suited and perfectly situated to lead this agency.

LUCAS: Chipman has supported a ban on assault weapons and limits on high-capacity magazines. That sort of public advocacy certainly sets him apart from previous nominees, and it's a major factor behind the community support for his nomination. But it has also fueled intense pushback from gun rights groups, including the National Rifle Association.

AMY HUNTER: It's hard for the NRA to imagine a nominee more hostile to the rights of American gun owners than Chipman.

LUCAS: Amy Hunter is a spokesperson for the NRA.

HUNTER: It's clear to the NRA that if confirmed, Chipman will use every tool at his disposal to attack the rights of law-abiding gun owners.

LUCAS: The NRA isn't alone in its opposition. Gun Owners of America, the National Association for Gun Rights and similar groups all fiercely oppose Chipman's nomination. And that's no small thing since opposition from such groups has routinely torpedoed previous nominees. In fact, the ATF hasn't had a Senate-confirmed director in six years. It's had only one since 2006, when Congress made the position Senate-approved. Even President Trump's nominee, the former head of the Fraternal Order of Police Chuck Canterbury, failed to win approval in a Republican-controlled Senate because of concern from conservatives about his gun rights views. With the Senate currently split evenly 50-50, Chipman's path to confirmation is even narrower. Ryan Lucas, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINAMI DEUTSCH'S "TUNNEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.