President Joe Biden’s choice to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) told Senate Republicans that he supports banning AR-15 assault rifles but massively struggled to define an “assault weapon” during his confirmation hearing Wednesday.
David Chipman, a former ATF special agent and a gun-control activist spending the last few years lobbying as a senior policy adviser at Giffords — an gun control advocacy group founded by former congresswoman and mass-shooting survivor Gabrielle Giffords was tapped last month by Biden to oversee the agency that plays a major role in regulating guns. Biden selected Chipman after a lobbying campaign by gun safety organizations, led by Giffords and former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg.
“Gun violence in this country is an epidemic,” Biden said during a White House announcement last month after unveiling a slew of gun control executive orders and announcing Chipman’s nomination.
During a contentious and ruckus Senate Judiciary hearing, Chipman got a rough welcome from Senate Republicans who tore into his proposal in supporting to ban assault weapons and his refusal to commit to investigating Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, following recently reported allegations that he violated federal law when he falsified information on his background check forms to obtain a firearm.
“Many see putting a committed gun control proponent like David Chipman in charge of ATF is like putting a tobacco executive in charge of the Department of Health and Human Services or Antifa in charge of the Portland Police Department,” Senate Judiciary ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said at the beginning of the hearing.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) focused his line of questioning regarding Chipman’s “public position” in supporting a ban on AR-15s, an action Biden heavily supports and has called on Congress to “immediately pass” a campaign aggressive proposed legislation that would “ban the manufacture and sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines” as well as mandate a tax fee to gun owners.
“Senator Whitehouse asked you if any of your views on guns are out of step with the majority of the American people. They are,” Cruz said, reminding Chipman that the AR-15 is “not a machine gun, it’s a rifle,” and it is “one of the most popular rifles in America.”
“I support a ban as it has been presented in a Senate bill and supported by the president. The AR-15 is a gun I was issued on ATF’s swat team, and it’s a particularly lethal weapon and regulating it as other particularly lethal weapons I have advocated for,” Chipman responded. “As ATF director, if I’m confirmed, I would simply enforce the laws in the books, and right now, there is no such ban on those guns.”
Cruz noted the Senate bill, sponsored by Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, was automatically brought up to a floor vote in a Democrat-controlled Senate back in 2013 with “a supermajority of senators voted against” the measure by a vote of 60-40. He explained to the AFT nominee the reason it failed to pass was based on a Department of Justice report that conducted a study of a previous ban on so-called assault weapons, a bill authored by Biden in 1994 and “discovered that it had no measurable impact on violent crime.”
The Texas Senator recalled the one-on-one meeting they had a day prior where Chipman stated that Feinstein’s bill “didn’t go far enough” and “wanted an even broader ban to ban,” asking if his definition of a ban extends to also having the “government go after the people who currently possess firearms” to confiscate their weapons if they failed to “register and submit to all of the onerous restrictions of the National Firearms Act.”
Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) would continuously demand Chipman to personally define “assault weapon,” with the former ATF agent deflecting the questions numerous times, despite being issued one as an agent in the ATF SWAT team and owning one or more of the rifle.
“Define assault weapons?” Kennedy asked after Chipman said that he does believe in banning assault weapons.
“Assault weapons would be something that members of Congress would define,” Chipman answered.
“Well, how do you define it, you’re going to be running the agency,” Kennedy pressed on.
“I think this is a good question. If I am confirmed as ATF director,” Chipman said before Kennedy interjected to push the question again, “I got 35 seconds left. Define it for me, would you please, sir. What’s an assault weapon?”
“Senator… There’s no way I could define an assault weapon,” Chipman answered, stumbling over his response.
“You don’t have any. You’re gonna run this agency, and you don’t have a definition of assault weapon,” an incredulous Kennedy said. “You gonna be issuing rules and regulations. Just give me your definition.
Chipman would continue to divert from defining what is an assault weapon, repeatedly saying, “I’ll give you one definition that ATF currently uses,” with Kennedy interrupting the AFT nominee in pushing him to provide his own personal definition.
“If you won’t answer my question, how can I vote for you,” Kennedy concluded. “I’m done. Mr. Chairman, I don’t think I’m gonna give an answer.”
The same exact question would dominate the hearing when Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) would also ask Chipman to define “assault weapon.”
“You’re asking us to ban assault weapons,” Cotton pressed on. “We have to write legislation. Can you tell me what is an assault weapon? How would you define it if you were the head of the ATF? How have you defined it over the last several years in your role as a gun control advocate?”
Chipman would cite a firearm sale reports on the southwestern border, claiming the ATF defines an assault rifle as “any semi-automatic rifle capable of accepting a detachable magazine above the caliber of .22, which would include a .223, which is, you know largely the AR-15 round.”
“So you believe that every weapon that takes a detachable magazine, that can take a .22 round — or 5.56 in military parlance — should be defined as an assault weapon?” Cotton said, dumbfounded by Chipman’s response. “A detachable magazine that takes a .556 or .22 round should be defined as an assault weapon?”
“Senator, you asked me if ATF had used this term, and I was sharing with you my knowledge of a program in which ATF has defined this term,” Chipman deflected, refusing to say what he believes defines an assault weapon definitively.
There is no official legal definition to define “assault weapon” or “assault rifle.” The National Rifle Association (NRA) uses the military definition to define an assault rifle, classifying the term as “a selective-fire rifle chambered for a cartridge of intermediate power. If applied to any semi-automatic firearm regardless of its cosmetic similarity to a true assault rifle, the term is incorrect.”
Cotton also pressed Chipman during the heated exchange of the question to commit to investigating reports that the president’s son Hunter Biden violated federal law when lying about his history of drug use in an AFT form in order to purchase a firearm back in 2018.
“Hunter Biden has … published a book and gone on a nationwide book tour conducting numerous interviews stating that he was, in fact, very much addicted to drugs at the same time that he purchased this firearm,” Cotton said. “This would mean that by his own admission Hunter Biden lied on that form, and by your earlier testimony, committed a serious felony. Should Hunter Biden be prosecuted for breaking this law?”
“If I’m confirmed as ATF director, it will be my responsibility to enforce all federal laws without political favor. I do not know any factors in this particular case, but I am familiar with the press account of it,” Chipman deflected, yet again.
The response didn’t sit well with Cotton as he pointed out the timeline of Hunter Biden based on the recent report and noted specifically that the AFT form 4473 has a question asking if one is an “unlawful user of or addicted to any drug or uncontrolled substance.” However, Hunter checked off no despite the fact he publicly revealed based on his recent flunked book memoir and the numerous nationwide book tour interviews that he was indeed, in fact, a heavy drug user at the same he purchased the firearm.
“Can I get your commitment that if you are confirmed, you will, in fact, look into this matter and refer it for prosecution if you find that Hunter Biden violated the law?” Cotton asked again.
“I will ensure that all violations of law are investigated and referred to,” Chipman said. “I’m not sure that it has not been investigated.”
White House officials believe that Chipman will be nominated by securing nearly all of the Democratic senators’ votes with the possibility of having about one or two Republicans crossing the aisle. The official is banking on the nomination based on either two critical Democrats, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Krysten Sinema of Arizona, who has said so far they are likely to vote for Chipman based on his hearing testimony.
The second possibility, according to the official estimate, will also depend on two moderate Republicans who have not ruled out supporting Chipman — Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, who has gone against numerous GOP opposition of Biden’s pick in helping to advance their nomination forward as well as Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.