The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is supposed to regulate the gun industry and protect the American public from gun crime. But as The Trace’s past reporting has shown, the ATF often falls short of that mandate. This is no accident.
This episode of The Gun Machine draws on host Alain Stephens’ seven years of reporting on the ATF to chronicle how the gun lobby and its Congressional allies worked to limit the agency’s enforcement powers and resources. Stephens speaks to Steve Dettelbach — the ATF’s first permanent director in seven years — about the challenges agents face trying to do their jobs. Stephens also talks to retired ATF agent David Chipman about how controversial episodes like the Ruby Ridge standoff and the Waco siege turned public opinion against the agency, paving the way for budget cuts and legislative restrictions.
Alain Stephens: October 1989. Sandpoint, Idaho, about 60 miles south of the Canadian border. Kenneth Fadeley is looking for help. He’s spent the last few years infiltrating the Aryan Nations in the Pacific Northwest, a far-right extremist group aimed at waging war on what they dub the Zionist federal government. Fadeley says he’s looking to buy and move some criminal firepower. Particularly, he needs some sawed off shotguns. And he’s found just the guy to do it: Randy Weaver.” An anti-government, extremist, who hangs in the same white supremacist circles, Weaver and his family live off the grid. Armed to the teeth and cemented in apocalyptic beliefs. His kids even don swastika armbands. Weaver wants to live a white separatist existence, but he also needs cash. According to government reports, he sells Fadeley two freshly cut-down shotguns. A single shot 12-gauge, and pump action Remington 870 — to the tune of 300 bucks But what Weaver doesn’t know is that Fadeley isn’t an Aryan nations weapons dealer. He’s a federal informant for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The ATF. And Weaver is accused of breaking federal gun laws. Weaver is arrested and faces federal weapons charges. He’s later released on bail, but misses a court appearance. That’s when federal agents put his remote cabin under surveillance in Ruby Ridge, Idaho. They know Weaver is heavily armed with his wife, four kids, and a family friend. In August of 1992, agents stake out the property to come up with a way to peacefully arrest Weaver. Larry Cooper, a retired U.S. Marshal, was there that day.
[Larry Cooper: The plan was to put an undercover guy up there who was going to buy this land above Weaver.]
Alain Stephens: Things do not go according to plan. The Weaver’s dog gets wind of the agents—
[Larry Cooper: That dog came to the edge of the driveway there and started barking. That’s when the chase really happened.]
Alain Stephens: Things quickly go south. An agent shoots the dog. What happens next is still under dispute, but a firefight breaks out — killing Weaver’s 14-year-old son Sam and Deputy U.S. Marshal Billy Degan.
[Larry Cooper: When I got to Billy, I tried to find where he was hit. I could tell he was dying. And I put my hands on his carotid artery and it stopped.]
Alain Stephens: The Weavers and their friend hole up in the cabin. The Marshals call for back-up, and the FBI hostage team responds. The next day, an FBI sniper wounds Weaver, and a misplaced shot kills Weaver’s wife, Vicki. During a days-long siege of the cabin, right-wing protesters show up. When they find out that Vicki was killed, they go wild.
[Archival audio via American Experience, Ruby Ridge (PBS): Never will you take another woman down! Never! // We’re going to war! // You’re nothing!]
Alain Stephens: Weaver becomes a right-wing hero. He launches a successful self-defense campaign in court, and gets sentenced to 18 months behind bars and a $10,000 fine. The Justice Department’s Ruby Ridge Task Force would later clear the US Marshals of wrongdoing, and lay the bulk of the blame on the FBI’s response. But none of this would matter because publicly another agency was going to hold the bag for the catastrophe and carry the burden for the decades to come: The ATF. You might not have heard of them, but for a certain cross-section of Americans who have, they absolutely, positively hate them.
[Clip from “B.A.T.F.” by Aus-Rotten: ATF! ATF! We don’t need the ATF!]
[Clip from YouTube: Talking about the ATF today. The ATF fucking sucks.]
[Clip from YouTube: This is just a warning to the ATF agents. Do you really want to stir the hornet’s nest?]
[Clip from YouTube: Abolish the ATF. That’s what this is about. It has become anti-gun and anti-Second Amendments. Their efforts are towards diminishing our Second Amendment rights.]
[John Williams, Black Flag Solutions: Don’t comply. Fuck that. And fuck the ATF. ]
[Clip from “B.A.T.F.” by Aus-Rotten: We don’t need the ATF! ATF! ATF! We don’t need the ATF! ATF! ATF! We don’t need the ATF!]
Alain Stephens: They are supposed to be America’s top gun cops, a federal law enforcement agency responsible for investigating all federal gun crimes, from illegal weapons sales to the criminal manufacture of things like machine guns and suppressors. But in a country of world-class firepower, the bureau is maligned. Weighted down by scandal. And due to the political polarization around guns, and fear of public ridicule, they operate in the shadows of a national crisis. They have been the focus of the bulk of my reporting over the years. And I can tell you through investigations, public records, and countless interviews: They are weak, resource deprived, and often conciliatory to the industry they are meant to regulate. And this is all by design. I’m Alain Stephens, and you’re listening to The Gun Machine: How America Was Forged by the Gun Industry, a podcast by WBUR and The Trace. “Chapter 7: What the ATF.”
[ATF Director Steve Dettelbach: The men and women who work at ATF, the law enforcement officers, the career people, who are out there every day protecting people, are truly an incredible group.]
Alain Stephens: This is Steve Dettelbach. He is the current director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. And I don’t envy him.
[Steve Dettelbach: We sit here at ATF with very few resources, but with an incredible workforce that runs towards the gunfire every single day. I can’t honestly say that was a surprise. It sure as heck gets me up every day trying to fight for these folks and to help them to have the tools they need to protect people.]
Alain Stephens: I’mma keep it 100. As a reporter on the ATF beat for the past seven years, and because of the work I’ve done to shine some light on this agency that lives in the shadows, I’ve had some tense moments with their top brass. I’ve reported on how ATF inspectors go easy on shoddy gun dealers. I hit them on their staffing shortfalls, on their secrecy. I’ve filed so many public records requests that their public information officer knows me by name. So I was pretty shocked when Dettelbach — the head honcho — agreed to sit down and talk.
[Steve Dettelbach: I really appreciate you guys too. OK, you know, I lived up there for three years and you were my radio station.]
Alain Stephens: And he also wants to tell us what a fan he is of the ATF—
[Steve Dettelbach: I want to make sure that people understand all the fantastic enforcement work that is going on, all the fantastic regulatory work that is going on at ATF]
Alain Stephens: That’s what he wants you to know, but it’s my job to also expose the shortfalls. That’s why I’m constantly casing the joint, searching for agents, sources, retirees, and documents. As a journalist, I know that due to the politics of firearms, Dettelbach has a thousand eyes on him, and for this, I cannot take his statements at face value.
[Steve Dettelbach: I don’t think there’s ever been a point in time where ATF has had better relationships with state and local law enforcement than we do right now.]
Alain Stephens: Dettelbach’s one of the few to successfully make it through the gauntlet of Senate confirmation to become the ATF director. Before him, the position was vacant for 7 years. Let me back up a little. Because while the ATF is my beat — my bread and butter — I also realize a lot of people have never even heard of it, or don’t really get what it’s supposed to do. So let me lay it out for you: The ATF is the main federal regulatory agency over the firearms industry. That includes making sure America’s nearly 136,000 licensed gun dealers and distributors are up to snuff. It’s Dettelbach’s job to enforce gun regulations, oversee the multi-billion-dollar firearms manufacturing industry — with the ATF deciding how a weapon can be sold to the general public, if it can be sold at all. As you can imagine, it’s a position the industry, lobbyists, and lawmakers are very vocal about. Take this oversight hearing earlier this year where Ohio Republican Congressman, Jim Jordan, goes after not just the ATF, but its recently appointed director.
[U.S. Representative Jim Jordan: And now it’s the ATF. Except with the ATF, they don’t even claim to be experts. The director said so last week. Earlier this year, the ATF issued a rule that unilaterally puts new restrictions on Second Amendment rights. Director Dettelbach has in essence become a one-man Congress. This is an attack on the Second Amendment, pure and simple.]
Alain Stephens: This lambasting of the ATF and its leaders is nothing new, and Dettelbach is used to dealing with it.
[Steve Dettelbach: As a regulator it is just not uncommon for the regulated industry to have some type of different views. What we do is we listen, I’ll give you an example…]
Alain Stephens: But Dettelbach isn’t just in charge of regulating guns and the industry. They’re also a law enforcement agency, going after arms traffickers, gang members, and some of America’s most wanted criminals. And this is the only federal agency that can assist the thousands of other law enforcement entities across the country with their gun problems. The ATF runs the national Tracing Center — the country’s only means of tracking a firearm from the crime scene all the way back to the assembly line. The center also manages ballistic software that can match spent bullets to guns, like fingerprints to fingers. And they are expected to do all this with about 5,000 employees. That’s fewer people than the Philly police department, about half of the personnel of the DEA, or about 14 percent the size of the FBI.
[Steve Dettelbach: We’re a very small agency with a very big mission. Huge problem, growing problem. Um, that’s a tough frame to see the world through.]
Alain Stephens: And he’s right, and it is somewhat weird when it comes to firearms that America’s prime gun cops are essentially the pea shooters in a pistol fight. But that is also part of the ATF’s foundational blueprint. You see, the federal government never imagined federal firearms enforcement agents collecting guns. It was more about collecting money.
[Robert Spitzer: The ATF is actually a very old agency. Its ancestor was established in 1791 to monitor and raise alcohol-related revenue, which was very controversial in the 1790s.]
Alain Stephens: That’s author and professor emeritus at SUNY Cortland Robert Spitzer again. We heard from him earlier in the series. He says it wasn’t until the 20th century that the ATF got into the law enforcement business, to track down moonshiners during Prohibition. If you’re thinking you haven’t heard of the ATF at all, you probably have—
[Clip from The Untouchables: Come on Al Capone, you wanna fight? You wanna fight right here?]
Alain Stephens: –if you saw the classic 1987 movie The Untouchables, starring Kevin Costner as the ATF’s most famous Prohibition enforcer: Eliot Ness.
[Clip from The Untouchables: What’s the matter? You afraid to come out from behind your menu? Afraid to stand up for yourself?]
Alain Stephens: The ATF starts regulating guns a little later, in the 1940s. But it would take another 30 years before it would become its own agency.
[Archive footage from Ball State University Libraries: The Gun Control Act of 1968, just passed by the Congress, and signed into law by the President, grants possessors of certain types of firearms 30 days of grace in order to register these weapons.]
Alain Stephens: This new law gives the agency new resolve, a new mission and a new name: the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Division. By 1972, it becomes its own independent bureau under the Department of Treasury. And it’s no longer interested in collecting taxes as much as it has turned into a full bonafide law enforcement agency, with gun-toting agents out arresting people. Spitzer says this is a turning point. Because as soon as it became its own thing, with real powers, the NRA — remember those guys? — starts targeting it.
[Robert Spitzer: The NRA becomes decidedly more political and more extremist, and the new leaders of the NRA at the end of the 1970s and early 1980s began to view the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms as the enemy. ]
Alain Stephens: By 1981, the NRA produces a whole-ass documentary about the ATF. In it, Democratic Representative John Dingell of Michigan, who was also an NRA board member, calls the bureau “fascists.” Other members of Congress bludgeon the ATF accusing it of creating secret record books with lists of every American who owns a gun, creating a fear that the government is going to come for your guns. So the Reagan administration, backed by the NRA, promises to dissolve the ATF by slashing its budget and dividing up its responsibilities.
[Newsreel: And now ATF is being disbanded. Secret Service will take over the firearms enforcement, along with alcohol. Customs Department will handle the tobacco end.]
[Robert Spitzer: And this was part of a conscious strategy precisely to marginalize the ATF, and what better way to undercut and minimize existing gun laws than to attack the agency charged with carrying them out.]
Alain Stephens: But soon after Reagan announces the change, the NRA realizes that folding the ATF’s gun duties into the Secret Service was a terrible mistake. As one Democratic Congressman remarks, the Secret Service “might actually take the functions seriously and not be so easy to intimidate.” The NRA starts freaking out, and teams up with the liquor lobby to convince a Republican Congressman to insert language into a budget bill that more or less restores the ATF’s funding — but still keeps them in check. The ATF gets the message: ‘You will run lean. You will run small. And you are lucky to be here.’ And that’s why as the American gun violence crisis only worsens, the Bureau that employed 4,000 people in 1973 has expanded to a whopping 5,000 today. So how does the ATF handle everything under its charge? According to Director Dettelbach…
[Steve Dettelbach: They are into doing the best they can to protect people from firearms, violence. They’re incredibly brave people. They work all the time. All the time, just day and night on this problem. And they do it because they care about other people.]
Alain Stephens: I do not envy Steve Dettelbach. Because he sits on a tightrope — between the Biden Administration’s decree that the ATF take the lead on tackling a nation’s bullet-filled disaster and not crossing an industry that is none-too-quick to add his name to the hit list of government pariahs. And that means he has a lot to lose. Which is why when we talk about the ATF, you need to find someone who has nothing to lose.
[Alain Stephens: I want this to be like the realest ATF interview maybe ever recorded.
[David Chipman: Well, you, uh, picked a good time in, in my retirement years to be very real, and I’ll tell you the first time I ever…]
Alain Stephens: This is David Chipman. If you find him now, he’s a desert dweller, golfer, steady in his retirement and a thousand miles away from all this bloody mess. But years ago. Chipman was an agent. He joined the ATF in 1988, at the cresting peak of American gun violence, when the bureau was looking for agents with a certain profile.
[David Chipman: I think the bread and butter of ATF has always been, ‘Let’s get the person who’s a state or local officer from a task force who always did great work, but was a pain in the ass to their boss, right?’ Let’s get them all together…]
Alain Stephens: By then, the ATF starts hiring ex-military and fresh young faces straight out of college. Anyone who has an aggressive energy and drive to take gun violence head on.
[David Chipman: People were taught to work their own informants and be self-initiated.]
Alain Stephens: And they were actually getting some quiet clout in the law enforcement community. The agency did things like piece together clues from hundreds of abortion clinic bombings, and swept up a cult of Neo-Nazi bank robbers. But the gaze of a brutal gun industry lobby weighed on them. The Bureau stopped bringing criminal charges against problematic gun dealers, as it did before, instead taking a softer approach: Coaxing the gun industry into compliance through bureaucracy. The ATF also pulled away agents from monitoring the thousands of gun shows across the country. From then on, it was in their best interest to stay out of the limelight. The Bureau understood the message clearly: Don’t get cocky. But the thing was, there wasn’t really anything to get cocky about: Remember, the 80s and 90s is peak crime wave. And New York City is the epicenter.
[Newsreel: Subway crime has hit an all-time high, according to the Transit Police. // Well, you hear examples of it almost every day. Tonight, there has been another victim. A man was shot twice in the chest on a number six train in Upper Manhattan. Police say that he was resisting a robbery attempt at the time…]
Alain Stephens: In 1989, New York is experiencing a brutal surge of shootings, getting hit with over 93,000 robberies. This is about the time Chipman starts his ATF career.
[David Chipman: I arrived in Virginia, it was my first post of duty.]
Alain Stephens: What Chipman and his fellow agents soon realize is that the crime wave in New York is being fueled by guns bought and sold in Virginia. But without many federal laws or regulations to work with, there wasn’t much the ATF could do to stop the flow of arms.
[David Chipman: And I’m not exaggerating, people thought, oh, hundreds at a time. I’m literally telling you that convicted felons from New York would come down and buy dozens and in one case I saw a hundred guns at a time. And then just get back on 95 and head north. And we wonder why 2000 people were being shot and killed a year up in New York City.]
Alain Stephens: That arms trafficking route would become so popular, agents dub it “The Iron Pipeline.” And this is the work, using what little resources they have, to try and plug the streams of guns flowing from America’s porous gun laws. But as the country moves into the ‘90s, something changes. See, no American Presidential contender had ever used gun control as a primary part of their policy platform. Until–
[Former U.S. President Bill Clinton: I had a friend, many years ago, who ran a little hardware store in a little town in North Arkansas. And he sold guns.]
Alain Stephens: Bill Clinton, who makes a series of promises early on the campaign trail, telling stories like this one.
[Former U.S. President Bill Clinton: And a man he hadn’t seen in ten years came into his store and said, ‘I want to buy a handgun.’ And so he pulled out this form and he said, ‘Now, have you ever committed a crime? Have you ever been in a mental institution?’ Of course, ‘No, no.’ And he put it right back in the folder and went on, sold the guy the gun. Within 18 hours, six people were dead. The man had escaped from our own veterans mental hospital. My friend, who just did what thousands of other people in his position do every day, and was plagued for years by the thought that somehow he was responsible.
Alain Stephens: Like we told you last time, Clinton was able to gain support to pass the Brady Bill, and that instituted a national background checking system for firearms sales. He also vows to ban assault weapons. And he promises to do all this with a strong law enforcement presence. But just when the ATF looks poised to realize a renewed sense of purpose, they’d mess up so bad…it became the biggest gift to Bureau skeptics and the gun industry…yet.”
[David Chipman: I was up in Maine and I got a call from a friend at ATF and I just assumed like, this is the call that’s gonna tell me my marching orders that get to New York. And he says, you gotta turn on the TV.]
[Newsreel: Good evening, everyone, and thank you for joining us. A fanatical, scripture-quoting religious leader who moved to Waco to await the end of the world instead may be to blame tonight for the deaths of several federal agents. // The gunfire took a heavy toll on the government agents. (GUNFIRE) Four dead, 14 wounded.]
Alain Stephens: The ATF’s 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian cult in Waco is the biggest loss of life in the agency’s history. Four federal agents die, more than a dozen others are wounded. Six cult members are also killed in the firefight. The ATF believed the group had a stockpile of illegal weapons, and planned to arrest cult leader David Koresh. But what was supposed to be a swift raid turns into a weeks’ long siege, taken over by the FBI.
[Newsreel: Good evening, in Waco, Texas tonight, 51 days after the standoff at the Branch Davidian compound began, they are searching for bodies. It was just afternoon today in Waco, and first the smoke, and then suddenly the flames made it clear that something horrible was happening. The FBI has said that nothing it did started the fire, that cult members themselves deliberately touched it off.]
Alain Stephens: To this day, there are disputes over how the fire started, but in the aftermath, 76 cult members, including 28 children, die in the blaze. It becomes a national horror story.
[David Chipman: I actually came to Waco only after the siege and I was actually one of four ATF agents who was assigned there because we had no involvement in the case, and DOJ and Treasury wanted independent investigators to look at what went wrong and help with the prosecution of Branch Davidian.]
Alain Stephens: Chipman spends months running an internal investigation into the aftermath of Waco and his evidence would be used in a federal trial against a dozen Branch Davidians.. The cogs of the NRA and the broader Second Amendment, or 2A, community had already started spinning. The Bureau was already dealing with the fallout from Ruby Ridge a year earlier. But now, with Waco, the NRA pounces on the ATF’s failures, revving up its campaign. Two years after Waco the NRA lashes out at the agency by sending a bombastic letter to its 3.5 million members. They describe federal agents as jackbooted thugs, donning Nazi bucket helmets and stormtrooper uniforms, with “more power to take away our Constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us.” The NRA later apologizes for the harsh language, but this kind of message isn’t new. The NRA and other groups had already labeled the ATF as the rogue tyrannical arm of federal gun control, a warning that the agency would come for your guns. Even during the 51-day siege anti-government demonstrators descended on Waco. Handing out booklets and fliers warnings of government overreach. And one of them was named Timothy McVeigh.
[Newsreel: The chaos in downtown Oklahoma City did indeed resemble Beirut after what police believed to be a 1,200 pound car bomb ripped through the nine-story federal building shortly after nine o’clock this morning.]
Alain Stephens: McVeigh and his accomplices would blow up a federal building, killing 168 people, including 19 kids, and wounding 500 others, on April 19, 1995.
[Newsreel, eyewitness: It hurts, deep down, as to why someone would do something of this magnitude. It’s just, it’s unreal.]
[Former U.S. President Bill Clinton: It was an act of cowardice, and it was evil]
Alain Stephens: The second anniversary of the fiery conclusion at Waco. You see, the auspices of a looming federal gun confiscation wasn’t just a philosophical battle cry for far-right gun politics. It had also become the literal battle cry for militias and white supremacists. A zeitgeist that had bled into literature, and talking points throughout the extremist underground, and trafficked at gun shows and rallies across the country.
[David Chipman: My wake-up call was driving up to Oklahoma City from Waco, Texas, where I worked the day of the Oklahoma City bombing. And then within two days having to come to grips with that my first assumption was wrong, that this wasn’t international terrorists who attacked our heartland. This was a domestic terrorist who was actually trying to even the score of Waco and kill ATF agents that were in the building.]
Alain Stephens: The wake up was simple: Everyone at the ATF was now persona non grata. For years the NRA had weathered the pro-gun control shenanigans of Clinton, quick to remind the world of the ATF’s perceived blemishes and failures, and then in 2000, the group spends millions to quietly back a new contender.
[Former U.S. President George W. Bush: There’s a big difference in philosophy between my opponent and me. He trusts government. I trust you. I trust you to invest…]
Alain Stephens: George W. Bush. And as we talked about last time, he’s a good friend of the gun lobby. It was time to cut off the head of the ATF.
[David Chipman: I felt like I was in the X-Files. “They can’t handle the truth” or something. I mean, it was really, I was like, well, what am I part of?]
Alain Stephens: Back after this break.
Alain Stephens: Let me set the stage: In the wake of 9/11, there was one of the biggest shake-ups in government history.
[Newsreel, Gwen Ifill: Today, the President signed a big new anti-terrorism bill that would expand the government’s ability to track down terrorists, but at some cost.]
[Former U.S. President George W. Bush: Make no mistake, the best way to make sure we protect our homeland is to succeed by bringing the terrorists abroad who try to strike us to justice.]
Alain Stephens: The U.S. PATRIOT Act of 2001. Suddenly there were new powers, provisions, and resources flowing through federal law enforcement, so much so it was hard for most regular Americans to even keep track of — which made it primed for lobbying. And the NRA strikes in 2006. The group is able to squeeze a provision into the renewal of the PATRIOT Act, and it changes the way the ATF director gets the job. Instead of just being appointed by the president, the director must now go through Senate approval. Suddenly the Untouchables become a lot more touchable. And almost no one has made it through this political gauntlet. Out of the past 17 years, the ATF has gone without a permanent director for all but three years. While the ATF was playing checkers, the gun lobby was playing chess, and they just took the queen. Checkmate. It’s a chilling effect for agents. For one, Chipman says it gets more dangerous for agents. Agents report being resource-deprived, with the bureau becoming less transparent — even with its own staff. Employee satisfaction with management plummets. Prosecutors become reluctant to get involved in certain cases.
[David Chipman: Typically it is that the law is written, is so murky by design that it’s difficult to prosecute.]
Alain Stephens: Things like going after bad gun stores, or arms traffickers get a bit dicier, when every move made may find the agency raked over the coals in a Congressional inquiry. So the prosecutorial appetite drops. And when it comes to the regulatory side, the agency loses its teeth nearly altogether. Having to be overwhelmingly friendly and forgiving, moving from a mission of deterrence to one of compliance. Hoping to win over an industry, and lobbying groups like the NRA and the National Shootings Sports Foundation, who actively attempt to stymie the Bureau’s efforts.
[David Chipman: You know, it’s like they have this secure store program, NSSF and ATF now, and it’s like they spend millions of dollars encouraging dealers to secure their guns like a bank would secure their money or your local pawn shop puts the jewelry in a safe, while at the same time lobbying Congress to make sure there’s no law in the books that makes it a law that gun dealers have to secure their guns. It’s this Orwellian world where you have the gun industry presenting themselves as this great partner, while at the same time profiting from gun violence and purposely undermining public safety.]
Alain Stephens: Additionally, powerful lobbying efforts turn the Bureau into a shell of secrecy: Prohibiting the Bureau from publicly naming brand names, models, or dealers whose weapons were implicated in crimes. While Chipman worked as an agent, he and others at the Bureau watched as Americans wrestled further with everything from communities flooded with trafficked weapons, to headline-grabbing mass shootings — and meanwhile, the agency was asleep at the wheel.
[David Chipman: We didn’t have a culture where I could speak honestly and candidly like this. It was forbidden, right? It was like always managing the story and part of law enforcement culture is giving the presence, like, “no, we’ve got this” when often we don’t got this.]
Alain Stephens: He says the Bureau was afraid to advocate for basic resources, or even just be honest with the American public on just what might be getting everyone killed.
[David Chipman: I felt like I was in the X-Files. “They can’t handle the truth” or something. I mean, it was really, I was like, well, what am I part of?]
Alain Stephens: And with that, David Chipman decided to retire from the ATF in 2012.
[David Chipman: I didn’t know what I was gonna do, but I said, I’m firing myself. I cannot do this anymore. I cannot be part of a system, a culture, a government where we’re just not being transparent about this very complicated problem.]
Alain Stephens: After throwing in the towel with the feds, he’d move to the advocacy space – working for Giffords and then Everytown for Gun Safety, which also provides funding to my employer – The Trace. And that would be the end of Chipman’s long history with the Bureau that in many ways helped shape him, and in other ways break him. That was until someone wanted him back.
[U.S. President Joseph Biden: Less than one week apart, there were more than 850 additional shootings — 850 — that took the lives of more than 250 people, and left 500 — 500 injured. This is an epidemic, for God’s sake. And it has to stop.]
Alain Stephens: By 2021 gun deaths were hitting a 30-year-peak. And part of the Biden administration’s opening salvo was trying to put a dent in the shootings. It wanted to wage war on gun violence. It wanted to do this with the closest tool at its disposal: The ATF. And it wanted David Chipman to do it.
[U.S. Senator Dick Durbin: Buckle your seatbelt. You want to be head of the ATF? Hang on tight. They’re coming after you, buddy.]
Alain Stephens: But first he’d have to get through the Senate, and get through the lobby, and the industry, and anyone else who ever viewed Chipman, or the ATF, as the spawn of gun-grabbing Satan. And all these people were about to make his life a living hell.
[David Chipman: I had someone the day after I was nominated, stand out in front of my house with a sign that said, “I hate David Chipman.”]
Alain Stephens: And if you think the halls of American Senate are at all more civil? These dudes is just as cold.
[U.S. Senator Steve Daines: Putting David Chipman in charge of the ATF is like putting an arsonist in charge of the fire department.]
[U.S. Senator Cynthia Lummis: One would be hard-pressed to identify a worse candidate for the job. According to reports, Chipman may have lost his own gun while serving as an ATF agent.]
[U.S. Senator Mike Lee: Just last year, Mr. Chipman made a statement openly mocking first time gun owners. He compared them to the Tiger King. He also then advised them to hide their newly purchased firearms behind the cans of tuna and beef jerky they have stored in a cabinet and only bring them out if the zombies start to appear.]
Alain Stephens: Gun rights circles even started circulating a fake photo of Chipman standing in the smoldering ashes of the Waco raid. Online trolls label him a child murderer.
[David Chipman: The fact that I had worked, in, organizations like Giffords and for Mayor Bloomberg, I, you know, I understood politically that I would take that.
Alain Stephens: Chipman and his family would be subjected to death threats. He’d request government protection and be denied, and instead, have to resort to hiring his own personal security. But past all the Congressional peacocking or industry influence, when it comes to actually passing anything to curb the violence: They don’t.
[David Chipman: I had Joe Friendly, Senator King, best Instagram feed of any U.S.senator, guy from Maine, looks like every grandfather and he looks me in the eye and says, David, I can’t possibly vote for you. You’ve gotta understand, one, gun violence isn’t a problem in Maine, and two, you’re not endorsed by the gun industry. My head almost exploded.]
Alain Stephens: We reached out to Senator King, but his office didn’t get back to us. And while Maine is small, they are not immune, suffering a yearly average of three gun deaths a week, the state is not immune to gun violence. As was starkly illustrated last month with the mass shooting in Lewiston,where a gunman killed 18 people before taking his own life.
[David Chipman: Maybe Maine does not have the problems that other states with urban centers have, or greater access to guns, but that’s really what you’re gonna hang your hat on? But I think the public needs to understand this truth. We’re not in a debate on how to solve the problem of gun violence. We’re not there. We’re in a conversation of: Is gun violence even a problem? And I didn’t realize that when I was on the job. I thought it was agreed.]
Alain Stephens: The heat on Chipman was simply too hot for the Biden administration. They pulled their nomination of him. Instead of trying to dig out old agents, they’d nominate a former U.S. Attorney: Steve Dettelbach.
Alain Stephens: For me, I’m also one of the agency’s most rampant watchdogs, no, not because of conspiracy or malice. But out of responsibility. This agency is my beat. It’s my job to cover the ATF — both successes and failures. I try to bring them out into the light, but these dudes are often committed to staying in the dark. Due to the political polarization around firearms, the agency honors fewer public information requests than the DEA, FBI, and CIA. It is an agency that refuses to answer basic questions, around basic crimes. When I call after a mass shooting, it’s typical to get no answer at all. When it comes to tracking guns used in crimes. It takes an agonizingly long time. Because in this AI age, the ATF is stuck in the analog. Congress barred them from using computerized records in 1986, so agents do it by hand, making phone calls and going through boxes of documents with a trace typically taking about 2 weeks. When they do receive digital documents, they’re forced to un-digitize them, working with painstakingly slow microfilm — a platform that was high tech about 200 years ago. In 2021, I reported on the ATF’s inspection division, the part of the Bureau that is responsible for inspecting gun dealers once every three years. Our data shows it’s more like once in every six. Some never get inspected at all. And when the ATF does come across wayward gun dealers, the agency is toothless, hardly exercising the few powers that they do have, with top ATF officials backing down on over half of the field inspectors’ punitive actions and recommendations. And while this is going on, the streets, look like this:
[Newsreel: In Washington State, at least two people killed and three others injured, including the alleged gunman. // In today’s headlines, six people are dead and at least 12 others are injured, some critically, following a mass shooting early this morning in downtown Sacramento. // “I have a child that’s laying out there and I want some answers. I just want some answers from somebody.” // In San Francisco, two shootings just minutes apart. // In Montgomery County, authorities say they have broken up a gun-trafficking ring. These are just some of the gun state and local agencies recovered. They say the ringleader coordinated seven people to make straw purchases, then sold the guns in several counties. Nearly 30 of the guns were recovered later when police were investigating other crimes, including shootings in Philadelphia. // In St. Louis, Missouri, a 17-year-old killed, nine other teens injured, when a gunman opened fire at a party inside this office building. // “Ages 15 to 19, 1 o’clock in the morning in an office building that we’re trying to figure out who had authority…”]
Alain Stephens: Over the years of my career, I’ve interviewed dozens of active and retired ATF personnel, all with different feelings on the agency — its successes and failures. But one throughline is abundantly clear among them all: They just wanna do their jobs. A mission Robert Spitzer says it critical to America’s safety
[Robert Spitzer: Shouldn’t an agency charged with that very important activity be able to utilize computerized records? Shouldn’t they be able to spend a greater amount of energy focusing on the small number of gun dealers who funnel a lot of guns that wind up using, being used in crimes? Shouldn’t they be able to create a database of what guns are sold to who and when, simply as a better way to get a handle on guns that wind up in the wrong hands, that wind up being used by people to do bad things?
Alain Stephens: Some things have changed under the Biden administration: A new federal arms trafficking law now allows them to go after arms traffickers, even though it’s too early to tell how well that is going. They have cracked down on ghost guns– adding more regulations to DIY gun kits and the people who sell them. And they’re trying to close the gun show loophole that will require more sellers to be licensed. That all sounds promising, but if history is a guide, these new initiatives will face heavy resistance — which will continue to make a hard job, even harder for the ATF.
[Robert Spitzer: All the agency wants to do is to do what Congress has charged them to do over the years and what the overwhelming majority of Americans and by the way, the overwhelming majority of gun owners say that they want the government to do, which is to carry out the existing gun laws. Why not let them do their job?]
Alain Stephens: Next time on the Gun Machine— our final episode— where we go straight to the top: the first White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention.
[Alain Stephens: We found for 2013 to 2022, the federal government awarded over $16.6 billion to guns and ammunition companies. Do you think you can win in that system?]
Alain Stephens: And I go home… to Texas… to try to chew on the real cost of gun violence.
[Edris Davis: And I was awakened, uh, to more miscalls. Something in my gut told me that something was terribly wrong.]
Alain Stephens: We’ll be back in two weeks, on November 22.
Alain Stephens: The Gun Machine is a production of WBUR in partnership with The Trace. I’m your host, Alain Stephens. If you want more on this, or any of our other episodes, you should visit the TheTrace.org/GunMachine or WBUR.org/GunMachine.
If you feel like we are telling an important story, review the show on your podcast app and fill out The Gun Machine survey at WBUR.org/survey. You can sign up for The Trace’s newsletter to find more on this reporting at TheTrace.org.
Our producer, who always has my six, is WBUR’s Grace Tatter. Our editing fellow from The Trace is Agya Aning. Orchestrating our beat drops is sound designer Emily Jankowski. Our production manager is Paul Vaitkus. Our editors are Kevin Sullivan and WBUR Podcasts executive producer Ben Brock Johnson. Additional editing from Miles Kohrman. Our WBUR managing producer is Samata Joshi. And our engagement editor at The Trace is Gracie McKenzie. Audio engineering from Tim Felten and our artwork is by Diego Mallo.
Support for the Gun Machine comes from The Joyce Foundation, a nonpartisan philanthropy that invests in racial equity and economic mobility in the Great Lakes region. For more than 25 years, Joyce has supported research, education, and policy solutions to reduce gun violence and make communities safer. To learn more, go to joycefdn.org. Additional funding provided by the Kendeda Fund.