Move over, Anthony Fauci: The far-right has a new villain to meme. His name is David Chipman, and President Joe Biden wants him to run the ATF.
If you only got your news from far-right forums, you’d probably think Chipman had cut a path of destruction throughout his career, posed for photos in front of smoldering rubble and dead children, and is now hell-bent on disarming America.
None of this is true, but it offers just a sample of the vitriolic disinformation campaign that Chipman has faced since his nomination to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was announced, on April 8. Last week, in testimony before the Senate Judiciary committee at his confirmation hearing—to which Republican senators came armed with pitchforks—Chipman attempted to set the record straight.
He addressed, for example, that viral photo making the rounds online since his nomination was announced, supposedly showing him standing before the wreckage of the 1993 Waco siege. “That is not me,” Chipman said. The image has shown up for decades on blogs dedicated to the Waco siege as part of a series purporting to show ATF agents at the scene.
Chipman affirmed that the picture was taken at Waco, but that the person in the photo was not an ATF agent. The ATF attempted to execute a warrant on a compound belonging to the Branch Davidians, a religious sect. A gunfight ensued, followed by a 51-day siege. All in all, 80 people were killed, including 25 children and four ATF agents. Chipman was deployed to Waco after the debacle to investigate what happened.
In that hearing, Chipman also reaffirmed his support for the reinstatement of the assault weapons ban, which would block high-powered firearms like the popular AR-15-style semi-automatic rifles. The ban expired in 2004, meaning it would have been in effect for roughly half of the 25 years he spent working in the ATF. He also noted that as ATF director, he would be responsible for enforcing the laws that are on the books—and as it stands, there is no such ban in place.
“These are people that have contempt for America—they have contempt for Americans,” Louisiana GOP Sen. John Kennedy told Fox News after the hearing, in reference to Biden’s nominees, including Chipman. “They think we are all a bunch of deplorables.”
To be fair, Chipman’s resume gives the gun lobby, conservatives, and anti-government types plenty of reason to sweat.
After his stint in the ATF, he took a job at Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy group, and later joined Giffords, a gun policy think tank that advocates for tighter gun laws, as a senior policy adviser. Chipman means business, but given the fraught nature of the gun debate in the U.S.—and the history of the ATF—he may be facing a bit of an uphill climb to confirmation.
“Buckle your seatbelt,” Senate Judiciary Committee chair Dick Durbin, a Democrat, told Chipman. “You want to be the head of the ATF, hang on tight.”
President Biden, who has described gun violence in the U.S. as an “international embarrassment” and an “epidemic,” has so far offered solutions to the problem that rely heavily on the effectiveness of Chipman—and the ATF. For example, he’s tasked the ATF with redefining firearm components, like lower receivers, to curb the proliferation of ghost guns. He’s also asked the agency to undertake the first gun trafficking study since 2000.
The problem is that the ATF has become such a political hot potato that the Senate has confirmed only one nominee in the past 15 years. (The NRA successfully lobbied to make the ATF director position subject to Senate approval.)
Since he was nominated, Chipman has suddenly become the face of a largely faceless agency that’s been locked in a decades-long cold war with the gun lobby and GOP, which has simmered pretty much since the ATF was made responsible for regulating firearms in America in 1968. The beleaguered agency has withstood abolition attempts by Republican presidents, been blocked from modernizing (for example, to this day, it relies on paper records to track firearm sales, since it’s been blocked from upgrading to modern systems), and hit with other rules that rendered it ineffective, as the New York Times recently laid out.
What’s more, his nomination comes amid a surge in militia activity and threats from anti-government extremists, which have been described by the intelligence community as one of the biggest threats to national security.
Even before Biden took office, militias, conspiracy theorists, and extremists were stoking fears of a looming gun-grabbing campaign.
The events at Waco cemented the ATF’s place as gun rights’ activists and extremists number one enemy. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was spotted hawking baseball caps emblazoned with bullet holes and the letters ATF, the Times reported. And today, Waco is often mythologized by the newer generation of anti-government extremists, who look to those events as the ultimate justification for their hatred of the federal government—the ATF in particular. It also continued to inspire merch. For example, a gun company that’s been promoted by Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene offers a T-shirt with the slogan “#DontWacoMeBro.”
The insurgent anti-government “Boogaloo” movement, a network of heavily armed, Hawaiian shirt–wearing militants who first emerged at street level to protest COVID-19 lockdown orders last year, also rallied around memes expressing antagonism toward the ATF. At one point, they even rebranded as the “Alphabet Bois,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to federal agencies like ATF, FBI, and DHS, to circumvent social media crackdowns.