Many American cities were already grappling with historic increases in gun violence when President Joe Biden took the oath of office in January, ratcheting up pressure on the new president to fulfill his campaign promises on gun reform. 

In March, Biden proposed spending $5 billion on community-led gun violence prevention programs, setting the stage for what would be a historically large outlay from the federal government for anti-violence work. The following month, in response to a series of high-profile mass shootings, he announced a slew of executive actions directing the Department of Justice to:

  • Embark on a process to curb the proliferation of homemade, untraceable ghost guns. 
  • Regulate pistol-stabilizing braces, a gun accessory used in the March 22 fatal shooting of 10 people at a Colorado grocery store.
  • Produce an annual report on gun trafficking.
  • Publish model legislation for states to adopt red flag laws, which allow courts to temporarily suspend the gun rights of people who pose a danger to themselves or others.

In what could be the most consequential move, Biden also nominated David Chipman — a retired agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — to lead the agency he once served. The ATF falls under the Justice Department and is the only federal agency tasked specifically with regulating the gun industry. It has lacked a permanent director since 2015. 

Chipman, now senior policy advisor for the gun control group Giffords, faces a tough confirmation battle in the Senate, where he appeared before the Judiciary Committee for a hearing on Wednesday. If approved, he will be in charge of reforming an agency that has repeatedly come under fire from both the left and the right for how it polices gun sellers. 

An investigation by The Trace and USA TODAY found that congressional restrictions, anemic funding and increasingly lax internal policies have weakened the ATF’s enforcement of the laws governing gun shops and other types of federally licensed firearm dealers.

The ATF allowed some sellers to go years without receiving an inspection, reporters found. When inspectors did show up, they often discovered violations of state and federal gun laws. Most cases resulted in the ATF either not punishing violators at all or issuing them a written warning — the lowest penalty available. It was exceedingly rare for the agency to shut down even the serious violators. 

The findings come against a backdrop of spiking gun sales and violence. The coronavirus pandemic and civil unrest spurred Americans to purchase a record-breaking 22 million guns in 2020. 

Violence increased, too. More than 19,000 Americans were killed by guns — excluding suicides — last year, a 26 percent increase over 2019, according to data compiled by the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive. The surge in violence has continued into the current year, with cities across the country reporting a stream of shootings that put them on track to break 2020 totals.

At Giffords, Chipman advocated for legislation to make it easier for the ATF to hold dealers accountable. In a 2013 op-ed for Politico, he bemoaned the ATF’s lack of resources as a hindrance to inspecting gun sellers on a regular basis, adding that the “gun lobby wins when ATF is inconsistent, distrusted and worthy of criticism.” 

Chipman declined to comment for this article before his confirmation hearing, but he told senators on Wednesday that if they approved his nomination, he would thoroughly review the inspection division’s operations. “We have to ensure that ATF inspectors are targeting those firearms dealers most at risk,” he said.

The ATF has been overseen by a series of acting leaders since 2006, when the National Rifle Association successfully lobbied Congress to take away the president’s power to appoint the agency’s director without Senate approval. Over the last 15 years, the gun lobby’s congressional allies successfully blocked every nominee with the exception of B. Todd Jones, who was confirmed in 2013 but stepped down from the post two years later. 

“The gun lobby has been committed to the idea of trying to cripple the ATF, and they have put pressure on their allies in Congress to do that over the years. So the agency has often operated at a much, much lower level of effectiveness than they are capable of,” said John Donohue, a law professor and economist at Stanford University. “I think the hope for the Biden administration is that the goals of the ATF can actually be realized with a good leader.” 

In 2008, Senators Larry Craig and Mike Crapo of Idaho and David Vitter of Louisiana, all Republicans, derailed the confirmation of President George W. Bush’s ATF director nominee over a dispute in which the lawmakers accused the agency of being overly aggressive in policing gun dealers. 

In 2020, conservatives derailed President Donald Trump’s nomination of Chuck Canterbury, the former president of the Fraternal Order of Police, over concerns that he would support expanded background checks for firearm purchases, among other gun control measures. Trump withdrew his nomination after Canterbury’s nomination lagged in the Senate. 

Carlton Bowers, a former ATF official who worked under Chipman before they both retired from the agency in 2012, said that having a confirmed director could breathe new life into the agency’s regulatory enforcement efforts. 

“Acting directors catch a lot of flack from other senior people because they are just acting,” Bowers said. “But when you are confirmed as the director of ATF, you have more respect. ”

The Senate’s Judiciary Committee chairman, Democrat Dick Durbin, said that he was focused on ensuring that Chipman clears the 51-vote margin needed to install him in the post, even if that means obtaining a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris. 

“How many times have you heard it said, ‘We don’t need new laws, we just need to enforce the laws on the books,’” Durbin said in a Senate floor speech in April. “What the gun lobby has done over the years is make sure the ATF doesn’t have any money, and doesn’t have any leaders. We haven’t had anyone in the post in six years with Senate confirmation, and I want to change that.”

In late April, a group of nine Republican congressmen called on Durbin and ranking Republican Senator Chuck Grassley to oppose Chipman’s nomination. Taylor Foy, a Grassley spokesperson, said “Mr. Chipman has made no bones about his desire to further restrict gun ownership.” Foy said there were already plenty of gun laws in place. 

“We’ve seen too many tragic events that could have been stopped if laws already on the books were properly enforced,” he said, “and the ATF shares responsibility for improved enforcement.”

Biden has evolved from a pro-gun Democrat to a staunch ally of the gun violence prevention groups. 

He helped pass the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act of 1986, an NRA-backed law preventing the ATF from inspecting gun dealers more than once a year and curbing the agency’s ability to shut them down. In the early 1990s, Biden fought against the NRA to ensure congressional passage of the Brady Bill, which established background checks for prospective gun purchasers. 

Biden made combating gun violence a key plank of his platform during the 2020 presidential campaign. He promised to strengthen the background check system, restrict access to assault-style weapons and hold gun manufacturers accountable for harms caused by their products. 

Some of Biden’s legislative objectives face hurdles in Congress, where Republicans are united in opposition, and some Democrats have also expressed misgivings. Advocates, meanwhile, have pointed to the ATF’s inspections program as another issue the president could reform without congressional approval. 

Chelsea Parsons, vice president of gun violence prevention at the Center for American Progress — a left-leaning think tank — said a confirmed director would help the ATF implement reforms in the face of pushback from the gun industry.

“If you don’t have stable, confirmed leadership that has the backing of the administration and Congress,” Parsons said, “then it makes it much more difficult to deal with the problems that we’re seeing with how the ATF’s regulating the industry.”

Brian Freskos and Nick Penzenstadler contributed reporting.