Don't let the NRA derail Biden's ATF pick. He's key to fighting gun violence: Ex-ATF agent

·5 min read
A vigil for the victims of a shooting at San Jose City Hall in San Jose, California, on May 27, 2021.
A vigil for the victims of a shooting at San Jose City Hall in San Jose, California, on May 27, 2021.

For many years, my identity was shaped by two organizations: the National Rifle Association and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. I joined the NRA as a “life member” in 1965 and started working at ATF in 1969. In the years since, I’ve watched the NRA mismanage its resources, grow far more extreme and dangerous, and let down the responsible gun owners like me that it claims to represent.

Meanwhile, the NRA has hampered the effectiveness of ATF by ensuring that it is too small and underfunded to effectively investigate and prevent violent crime. The NRA was responsible for laws that prevented ATF from using any computer systems to aid our investigations, resulting in urgent life-and-death firearms traces being done by phone call. And it has successfully prevented anyone from leading the agency since 2015.

Meanwhile, in just the past month, within a few miles of ATF headquarters in Washington, D.C., people fled for their lives in a popular restaurant and shopping corridor amid a hail of gunfire that injured two; three people were wounded in a shooting just outside Nationals Park during a game; and a 6-year-old girl was killed in crossfire.

ATF needs resources and leadership

President Joe Biden has nominated David Chipman, a 25-year veteran of ATF, to serve as the agency’s director. I wholeheartedly support David’s nomination. I know him to be a dedicated public servant, a fellow gun owner who wants to keep our country safe. Attorney General Merrick Garland has made it clear that confirming David is key to the administration’s plans to fight violent crime and stop the trafficking of illegal firearms.

Former ATF veteran and gun owner David Chipman testifies on Capitol Hill in 2019.
Former ATF veteran and gun owner David Chipman testifies on Capitol Hill in 2019.

The ongoing crime surge only underscores the necessity for a permanent ATF director. But David's nomination terrifies the NRA. The gun lobby wants to preserve the status quo and keep profiting at the expense of American lives.

In October 2019, I called on my fellow NRA members to stop paying their dues. Once, the NRA actually stood for firearm safety and marksmanship. Today, it appeases members by opposing measures that would protect our communities. I was an NRA police firearms instructor with ATF for several years. I used to believe the organization represented me, but I haven’t felt that way in a very long time.

Line of fire: NRA has hobbled the ATF and turned America into a firearm bazaar. Can Biden change that?

The NRA’s growing extremism and mismanagement of resources should make any responsible gun owner’s stomach churn. CEO Wayne LaPierre spent more than $200,000 on suits at a Beverly Hills boutique and took private flights with his wife and niece on the NRA’s dime; the organization later laid off more than 60 staff members, according to Politico, and cut salaries by 20%. The NRA has ties to Russian spies, pending lawsuits against it for illegal campaign contributions, and a recent declaration of bankruptcy in a seeming ploy to avoid an investigation.

By contrast, the ATF is severely under-resourced – in large part because of the NRA and the gun lobby. ATF plays a critical role in preventing and solving violent crime, including investigating gun trafficking and corrupt dealers, in addition to making sure that all dealers comply with federal law. The bureau has nowhere near enough agents and Industry Operations Investigators to investigate 54,000 federally licensed firearm dealers annually, or even every few years, as is recommended.

David Ziegler, 2019.
David Ziegler, 2019.

When I started with ATF in 1969, we visited every new federally licensed dealer both to check their application and also to help them with questions and procedures, and build relationships. That’s no longer possible. From 2010 to 2020, ATF’s enacted budget increased by only 6% when adjusted for inflation – meanwhile, the gun industry grew much faster.

Gun violence spiked last year and remains far too high, and now the country is experiencing a surge in violent crime. Simply put, ATF can’t keep up. This should concern all of us.

Deliberately trapped in 20th century

On top of laws that prevent ATF from using computer systems in investigations, the NRA and other gun lobby groups have also lobbied for laws that prevent ATF from digitizing its files, leading to massive stacks of cardboard boxes that literally resulted in the floor of a building caving in. ATF has been deliberately trapped in the 20th century while criminals and shady dealers are utilizing modern technology. The NRA has also helped prevent ATF from benefiting from permanent leadership. Since 2006, the Senate has confirmed only one person to the position of ATF director.

After the San Jose shooting: Confirm new ATF chief to police the gun industry and save lives

Now the Senate is on the verge of confirming the bureau’s second director in 15 years – but the debate has become predictably partisan, with doctored photos and baseless conspiracy theories flying around. I hate seeing these lies circulated by people who have never worked at ATF and have no idea what it takes to devote your life to keeping people safe.

David Chipman investigated some of the most serious incidents of terrorism of the past few decades, including the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. He served on the ATF’s version of SWAT, putting his life on the line for his fellow agents, and was awarded the Attorney General’s Award for Outstanding Contributions to Community Partnerships for Public Safety.

Opinions in your inbox: The best insights and analysis every morning

We can’t let the NRA define what public safety looks like for our country. Some 40,000 Americans dying from gun violence each year is a public safety failure, period. ATF can help right this terrible wrong, but it needs resources and strong leadership to do so. It has become obvious and urgent we all must come together on a national basis to address the sudden rising gun violence. The new direction of the ATF will be a significant start to combat this crime surge.

Confirming David Chipman is undeniably the right move for the country. Let’s not allow the NRA and the politicians on its payroll get their way by derailing this confirmation.

David Ziegler is a former NRA member and retired ATF agent.

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@usatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Confirm Biden's ATF chief. Don't let NRA control public safety in USA.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting