As President Joe Biden moves to curb the nationwide uptick in violent crime, one key priority for his administration is gun control – particularly, cracking down on the buying and selling of illegal firearms.
But the agency tasked with doing just this has faced years of struggles: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
ATF is seen by some as a political hot potato, one hobbled by a lack of permanent leadership, and targeted for years by the powerful lobbying arm of the NRA.
Since 2006, ATF has only had one Senate-confirmed leader, who stepped down in 2015. Since then, it has been led by “acting” officials” – a distinction that may not seem technically significant, but one that former law enforcement officials say has an enormous impact on day-to-day operations inside the bureau.
“The impact of not having permanent leadership … is enormous,” Darrel Stephens, a former North Carolina police chief who worked closely with the ATF, told Spectrum News in an interview. “Agents never know how long a person is going to last, they never know their inability to set strategy, to think three, four years down the road.”
“If you don’t have stable, confirmed leadership that has the backing of the administration and Congress, then it makes it much more difficult to deal with the problems that we’re seeing with how the ATF’s regulating the industry,” Chelsea Parsons, vice president of gun violence prevention at the Center for American Progress, told USA Today earlier this year.
So what’s hampering the agency’s efforts to recruit a permanent director? Stephens blames the NRA.
“They have had an iron grip on Congress,” he claims. “We haven’t had a permanent director because the NRA’s influence on enough people in the Senate they support financially.”
So far this year, the NRA has spent millions of dollars opposing Chipman’s confirmation and Biden’s gun agenda.
Earlier this year, the Biden administration nominated David Chipman, a former ATF agent and senior policy advisor at the gun control advocacy group Giffords, to lead the bureau – though it is unclear whether the Senate will vote to confirm him. In order to do so, he would likely need the votes of all 50 Democrats.
Moderate Democrats, largely those from red states, have repeatedly declined to say whether they’d support Chipman. On Monday, Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, told reporters he “hadn’t made up his mind,” and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said he was still “working on it.”
Stephens told Spectrum News that the lack of a permanent, Senate-confirmed ATF leader could result in a lack of internal oversight at a time when Biden is relying on the bureau to cooperate with local law enforcement.
“If you’ve got an acting director, and you’ve got maybe people that don’t support what the president is trying to do within your organization, than they just wait them out,” he said, adding that interim leaders “don’t make that extra effort to contribute to strategy that they may not believe in.”