David Versus Goliath


Illustra­tion by
Taylor Callery

An illustrated man stands inside the trigger guard of a gun, pushing back against the trigger being pulled

David Chipman did not yet have the job, but he possessed a determination he hoped would serve him well if he landed it.

In April 2021, President Biden nominated Chipman, SPA/BA ’87, as director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). While he waited for the Senate confirmation process to unfold, the 25-year ATF veteran took daily meetings with senior staff he hoped would join him at the 5,000-employee agency. Chipman drew up a plan that would allow ATF to crack down on ghost guns—untraceable, unregistered weapons assembled at home—in his first 90 days. He resolved to change the culture at the agency, to empower ATF agents and inspectors, and to act quickly as “the tip of the spear” in the administration’s efforts to implement new regulations to address what Biden has termed the “international embarrassment” of American gun violence.

But as Chipman’s critics mobilized to deny him the opportunity, the Michigan native came to embody a gun control debate that today feels as polarized and pressing as ever.

“I get why my opposition was doing everything they could to stop me from getting this job. We would have been holding the [gun] industry accountable. It would not have been business as usual,” Chipman says. “People are saying, ‘We’ve got time.’ I don’t think we’ve got time. People are dying at staggering rates. This is an urgent situation and it always has been.”

The list of cities grows as a nation grows numb. Colorado Springs. San Jose. Oxford. Sacramento. Chipman spoke with American on April 28. In the month that followed, the US witnessed 57 mass shootings—incidents in which four or more people were shot, not including the perpetrator—according to the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive. They include a chilling fortnight in American history: on May 14, a racially-motivated attack in which 10 people were shot and killed in a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, and 10 days later, a rampage at an Uvalde, Texas, elementary school that stole the lives of 19 fourth graders and two teachers. Both were perpetrated by 18-year-old men with assault weapons that had been legally purchased.

Ultimately, Chipman failed to break through. In a 50-50 Senate, Democrats could not afford a single defection and the White House pulled the nomination. Chipman would have been “an exemplary director of the ATF,” it said in a statement. In July, Biden’s second nominee, Steve Dettelbach, became the first Senate-confirmed director since 2015 by a 48-46 vote.

For five months, the “tip of the spear” was a lightning rod for criticism—the subject of a multimillion-dollar opposition campaign by gun rights organizations. The NRA said in an April 2021 statement that Chipman “cannot be trusted,” and one senator described him as an “anti-gun extremist.” Chipman expected that. “I thought it would be nasty, attacking me for things I had actually done,” he says. “And there were plenty. I’ve run my mouth for 10 years” as a gun control activist. That includes six years as a senior policy advisor at Giffords, a gun control advocacy organization cofounded by former representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), who in 2011 was shot in the head when a gunman opened fire on her constituent event outside a Tucson-area supermarket, wounding 18 people—six fatally.

He didn’t anticipate what he called a “scorched-earth” campaign that frequently dealt in incomplete context or falsehoods. Chipman’s name was attached to a photo of a federal agent standing near the charred remains of the Branch Davidians’ compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993. (He served as an ATF case agent after the deadly raid, but the photo wasn’t of him.) He was pilloried for a pair of Equal Employment Opportunity complaints against him from his ATF days. (Both were resolved without findings of discrimination.) A website launched attacking his wife, who retired early in July 2021 from her post as an ATF public affairs division chief. He hired his own security amid death threats. The onslaught made him feel “like I was on an island.”

“It’s this weird feeling of, ‘Yeah, the president asked me to do this, and of course I'm going to say yes, but, wow, why would anyone do this?’” he says.

An irony lost in Chipman’s failed nomination is that he remains a gun owner—maintaining a concealed-carry permit in Virginia since his retirement from ATF in 2012—whose views on gun regulations were shaped by his experiences in law enforcement. As a rookie agent, Chipman was assigned to Norfolk, Virginia, where he investigated gun traffickers utilizing the Old Dominion’s gun laws to purchase large quantities of firearms and smuggle them along the so-called Iron Pipeline. Instant background checks didn’t stop gun trafficking, but they at least provided leads.

“It was clear to me that just passing background checks across the country, if that’s all we did, would give law enforcement a [better] chance to solve gun crimes,” Chipman says. “I always felt like if people knew just how easy it would be to fix this, we’d have a safer country, but what I’ve come to find out is there are people who don’t want it fixed.”

Chipman reflects on his nomination without regret. He’s disillusioned not by the politics he knew would make his confirmation prospects dicey, but by what he believes is a failure by many to meaningfully engage by admitting the United States has a gun violence problem. “I don’t have the solution to that,” he says.

Thirty-five years of enforcing and talking about guns have taught Chipman when he’s making a difference and when he needs to recalibrate. Right now, it’s the latter; he left Giffords in May for a “reset.”

Despite a bipartisan breakthrough in June enhancing background checks on young gun buyers, incentivizing red-flag laws at the state level, and expanding legislation aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, Chipman is uncertain about more significant gun control legislation clearing the Senate.

But he is also not hopeless.

Chipman urges new gun control advocates to stay focused on policy measures on which most Americans agree—a May Reuters/Ipsos poll, for example, found that 84 percent of Americans support background checks on all gun sales, and 70 percent favor red-flag laws. His belief: change happens by sharing a beer with the ambivalent, the jaded, or the well-meaning but misinformed—those who believe guns are already regulated like cars—rather than trying to sway the most ardent gun supporters. 

As he thinks on his next move, he remembers a pep talk a friend gave him during last summer’s ATF confirmation slog: “You don’t have a right to be focused on the outcome. You just need to be focused on the now, on this process.”

It’s OK to be frustrated, to be tired, to have a crisis of confidence, or to need a break, Chipman says as he takes his own. But everyone has an arena—gun violence or otherwise—that they’re called to reenter when ready.

“So get in it. It might be ugly and you might have no control over the outcome, but my feeling was I didn’t always want to be in the stands,” Chipman says. “Sometimes we just have a responsibility to be in the fight.”