Why the ATF is often leaderless and how it affects the agency’s work

Back in April, the president nominated David Chipman to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). After retiring from the agency, Chipman advised gun control advocacy groups like Everytown and Giffords — a problem for Senate republicans and some moderate democrats. Now, President Biden must find a new candidate. William Brangham discusses with Alain Stephens of The Trace.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or the ATF, is the federal government's leading agency for regulating guns and for addressing gun violence.

    But it has been extremely hard, historically, to get the Senate to confirm a permanent chief.

    Today, President Biden withdrew his nominee for the job.

    William Brangham looks at what's behind that and what's at stake.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, this spring, the president nominated David Chipman to head the bureau. Chipman worked at the ATF for 25 years before retiring in 2012. He then advised groups that advocate for gun control, like Everytown and the Giffords Law Center, which was started by Gabby Giffords, the congresswoman from Arizona who was shot in 2011.

    And when it came to confirming Chipman, those affiliations were a problem for all of the Republicans in the Senate. Even some moderate Democrats expressed reservations.

    Now President Biden must find a new nominee, and the bureau remains leaderless.

    Alain Stephens has long covered these issue for the Web site The Trace, which focuses specifically on guns in America. He joins me from California.

    Alain, great to have you on the "NewsHour."

    David Chipman, this is someone who spent a quarter-century inside the ATF, and then advised these gun safety groups. On paper, that seems like a natural nominee for a Democratic president. And yet he's out.

    Can you explain the specific resistance to him?

  • Alain Stephens, The Trace:

    So, part of this is just because it's a very controversial position.

    In 2006, the National Rifle Association had successfully lobbied to remove the ATF director from a presidential appointment and to one that required congressional confirmation. And since then, they have been in a near perpetual cycle of acting directors, with only one confirmed director in the last 15 years in the form of B. Todd Jones under the Obama administration.

    And, because of this, right, the GOP and its allies have been able to really kind of hamper any sort of director from getting confirmed time and time again. So it's already a controversial position.

    And so, when you look at this, and anyone who has covered the ATF for some time, that is kind of par for the course to see this level of resistance. What was particularly interesting with Biden's pick, however, was, because the position is so controversial, historically, there's a tendency to kind of pick safer candidates.

    And in this case, Biden felt that he was very confident to try to push forward one that has some strong and vocal gun control support. And for many Democrats and independent Congress members who are in gun-friendly state, that was just a bridge too far.

  • William Brangham:

    So, the ATF is — as you're saying, it's not unusual that it's been leaderless for a long time.

    But can you explain, practically speaking, from a policy perspective, what does it mean that the ATF doesn't have a leader?

  • Alain Stephens:

    Right.

    So when you talk to the agents on the ground, the issue that they kind of talk about is how they're an agency that's held hostage. And that's very unique for a federal law enforcement agency that, because they are up for so much congressional public scrutiny that is almost exacerbated due to the political polarization surrounding guns, that they are unable to advocate successfully for resources without a confirmed director.

    When you look at other federal law enforcement entities, like the FBI, they are able to articulate long-term plans, right? We're going to tackle terrorism. You look at DEA. We're going to tackle the cartels.

    For the ATF, they're not able to really do that. They're not able to articulate these kind of overarching public safety issues and how they're going to address them. Instead, they're very much in kind of a reactive cycle. And that really hurts them. That keeps them down on their number of agents, inspectors.

    And it's very hard for them to get a lot of resources and assets to even compete with their federal law enforcement counterparts.

  • William Brangham:

    I know that you and your colleagues at The Trace did some investigation into the ATF's inspection of gun stores around the country.

    What did you find in that investigation?

  • Alain Stephens:

    We found a microcosm of exactly what we were just talking about here, that, due to the political polarization and the lack of resources because they have been leaderless and pretty much without an advocate, that they were essentially afraid.

    They were afraid to come down on bad gun stores that they knew had failed inspections. They're very lethargic with that. Going back to how this ties into an appointment of an ATF leader, actually, in 2007, right after this position became a congressional-appointed — or a congressional confirmation position, the first people to essentially rise up and advocate to their congressman to block Bush's appointee were actually gun stores who had failed an inspection because their guns had been showing up in crimes.

    They had their license revoked. And they were able to kind of reach out, get their local congressmen to raise issues about the potential ATF leader. And actually they created that cycle. And when you see this confirmation go on, you actually see a lot of the same tactics being used of gun store owners and stuff like that raising concerns.

    And that is kind of just something that has historically gone on for, like I said, almost 15 years.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, you and others have pointed out that the United States is unique in this ongoing epidemic we have of gun violence in this country, murders, suicides, mass shootings.

    And yet here we have the primary agency responsible for addressing that is essentially hamstrung.

  • Alain Stephens:

    Right.

    I mean, when I talk to people about just gun violence in America, one of the things that I kind of say is that we see a mass shooting, a major mass shooting in his country almost every other week. And on scene, we hear from the police chiefs. We hear from sheriff's departments. We hear from the FBI. But we don't hear from the ATF.

    And it's not because they're not on scene. They are. But it's because that fear of political scrutiny, and, again, tied to the just political polarization around firearms in this country, keeps them in a reactive state.

    And I think it's particularly interesting when you have a federal law enforcement entity that is more afraid of Congress essentially battling them or special interest lobbying than they are about failing their fundamental public safety mission.

  • William Brangham:

    Alain Stephens of The Trace, thank you very much for being here. Thanks for your reporting.

  • Alain Stephens:

    Thanks for having me.

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