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Biden pick for ATF pushes back against GOP senators — and disinformation

David Chipman responded at his confirmation hearing to false claims on social media that he was involved in the deadly 1993 ATF raid in Waco, Texas.
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President Joe Biden's choice to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, David Chipman, got a rough welcome Wednesday from Senate Republicans at a confirmation hearing, where he defended his statements about guns and pushed back against a social media disinformation campaign.

"Buckle your seat belt. You want to be the head of the ATF. Hang on tight. They're coming after you, buddy," Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told Chipman at the beginning of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. "It's going to be rough at times."

Leadership of the ATF, which enforces gun laws, has become a political hot potato — the Senate has managed to confirm only one director in the last 15 years, who served in the Obama administration.

Chipman spent more than two decades with the ATF before he went to work with Giffords, a group that advocates for stricter gun laws, which is named for its founder, Gabby Giffords, a former lawmaker who was shot at a constituent event.

Image: David Chipman at his confirmation hearing
David Chipman, President Joe Biden's nominee for director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, testifies during his confirmation hearing in Washington on Wednesday.Graeme Sloan / Sipa USA via AP

Chipman pushed back against a right-wing social media campaign that accused him of having participated in the deadly ATF raid on a cult compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993. The disinformation campaign included a picture, supposedly of Chipman, posing with a gun in front of the smoldering rubble of the Branch Davidian compound.

"This is not me," Chipman said, adding that whoever the person in the picture is, "it's not an ATF agent."

Chipman said he was sent to Waco in May 1993 — a month after the end of the deadly siege — to join the investigation into what went wrong. "One of the reasons I was selected is because I had no involvement in the actual case that was being examined," Chipman said.

As he was testifying, reports started coming in of a mass shooting at a rail yard in San Jose, California. At least eight people were killed.

"I'm sorry to hear that news. I wasn't aware of that. If I'm confirmed as ATF director, one of our priorities at ATF will be focusing on gun trafficking, the unlawful transfer of legal guns to criminals, and perhaps in this case, a crime like this could be prevented," Chipman said.

Republicans focused on Chipman's work on gun control, suggesting that it was disqualifying.

"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," said the committee's ranking member, Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, pressed Chipman about comments he had made opposing legislation that would loosen regulations for silencers for firearms, which Lee sponsored. "You said, 'The only people that benefit from this bill are gun lobbyists and criminals,'" Lee recounted.

"There are legitimate reasons someone might want to protect their hearing," he said.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, focused on Chapman's remarks supporting a ban on AR-15s, which Biden has also called for.

"The AR-15 is one of, if not the, most popular rifles in America," Cruz said. "Your public position is you want to ban AR-15s, is that correct?"

"I support a ban," Chipman said, but "if I'm confirmed, I would simply enforce the laws on the books right now. There is no such ban on those guns."

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., made it clear after the hearing that he would oppose Chipman's nomination, referring to him as "Joe Biden's gun-grabbing nominee for the ATF."

"This is the last person who should be given any power," Cotton tweeted.

The Senate is split 50-50 between the two parties. Democrats could confirm Chipman without any Republican support if they remain united, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting a tiebreaking vote.