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The NRA Is Bankrupt but It Still Owns America’s Gun Agency

·7-min read
Photo Illustration by Kristen Hazzard/The Daily Beast/AP Images
Photo Illustration by Kristen Hazzard/The Daily Beast/AP Images

The NRA declared bankruptcy; its longtime chief executive, Wayne LaPierre, has been disgraced, setting the gun-rights group back on its heels.

Yet the NRA is still a powerful enough force in Washington politics to derail President Biden’s effort to install a Senate-confirmed leader of the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives), once again reminding gun control advocates of how steep the climb is to achieve reasonable regulation of firearms.

While it’s mired in myriad Washington scandals, the NRA still has a devoted following in communities across America that aren’t bothered by mainstream media coverage of LaPierre living the high life on the NRA’s dime, or his botched shooting of an elephant in Botswana. They see that as the elites “coming after us” and coming for their guns. Knocking off another ATF nominee is the kind of fight the NRA loves, said Jim Kessler, who cut his teeth on Capitol Hill working on the assault weapons ban in the ’90s.

“The ATF director is on page 12 (of the newspaper) if he’s on any page at all,” Kessler continued. “It’s their kind of fight, where they’re the only one really paying attention.” Most Americans aren’t focused on who will lead the ATF, and when President Biden withdrew his nomination of former ATF agent David Chipman earlier this month, it received scant notice even though it was only the second time Biden pulled a Senate-confirmable appointee. (The other was Neera Tanden for the OMB.)

Wayne LaPierre Looks Like the Corrupt Elites He Rails Against

The NRA did not act alone. It was aided and abetted by an interlocking array of groups with lower national profiles. Among them is the NSSF (National Shooting Sports Foundation), headquartered in Newtown, Connecticut, just two miles from the school where 20 first graders were gunned down in December 2012. The NSSF’s pressure campaign helped persuade Senator Angus King of Maine to oppose Chipman. King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats and voted yes on background checks after the Sandy Hook shooting when several Democrats from swing states voted no, didn’t want to stand against sportsmen this time and, with all 50 Republicans opposed, that proved politically fatal.

The die was cast almost from the opening salvo with newer groups like the American Accountability Foundation (AAF) and “determined to fight dirty, spread lies, get the rumors flying and see which one sticks,” says a gun safety advocate who was not authorized to speak on the record. “It was a total smear campaign.” The most potent charge, the one that led to the most threats against Chipman and his family was “WACO Dave,” a photo of an agent alleged to be Chipman in camouflage pants holding an assault rifle in Waco, Texas, where federal agents raided a Branch Davidian compound. The photo was taken at the end of a 51-day siege in April 1993 that killed four ATF agents along with 76 Branch Davidians, including the group’s leader David Koresh, and many children, who died when fire engulfed their compound. Cited by the right as an example of government overreach, invoking Waco inspires religious-like fervor.

But Chipman was never in the FBI, and he was not at Waco during the siege. (He was assigned to investigate what happened afterward, which was all his malefactors needed to fuel their disinformation campaign.) Chipman, now in his mid-fifties, spent 25 years as an agent with the ATF, where he worked closely with the NSSF’s chief lobbyist, Larry Keane, on building safety training programs, only to see Keane and the NSSF take the lead in circulating a photo with false information about him that they knew was untrue.

Asked about that, Mark Oliva, NSSF’s director of public affairs, said, “We reported it was published by the Daily Mail and it was an alleged photo. We removed it from our web site several months later when it was disavowed.”

Another phony story claiming that Chipman left his firearm in a public restroom while he was with the ATF proved baseless. Any agent who makes that mistake must fill out reams of paperwork, and there is no evidence to support the charge. Mark Oliva said the NSSF “gave no credence” to that story. Still, it was all over MAGA news outlets, promoted by the American Accountability Project, along with an assertion that Chipman was a racist. In 25 years, two complaints were brought against him, one having to do with race, the other age. Neither of the complainants stepped forward as he was being considered for the ATF position.

Heritage Action for America, a spin-off of the Reagan-era think tank the Heritage Foundation, quickly claimed credit for pulling the nomination of a “radical anti-Second Amendment activist,” through the grassroots activism of its 2.1 million supporters.

“They’re a powerhouse and they do the bidding of the conservative eco-system,” says Kessler, who is now with Third Way, a think tank that began as a gun control group. “They’re MAGA hat wearers with a political strategy.” Heritage Action ranks lawmakers on key votes in its legislative scorecard, assigning percentage grades where the NRA gives letter grades. These scorecards are powerful motivators, especially in rural communities.

Gun safety advocates thought Biden had found the ideal ATF leader in Chipman, who knew how the place worked and was known as a reformer. He left the ATF almost a decade ago and most recently has been affiliated with Giffords, the gun safety group that bears the name of former Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords, gravely wounded in a supermarket parking lot shooting in 2011.

For years, the NRA had talked about abolishing ATF, but when it came close to being folded into the FBI under Reagan and again under Bush in the post-9/11 government reforms, “that was the last thing they wanted,” said Kessler. “They want the ATF beaten up but still standing.”

The NRA lobbied in 2006 to make the ATF director a Senate-confirmed position, and then proceeded to block every nominee but one through its many allies on Capitol Hill. The one exception was Obama nominee Byron Todd Jones, who had been acting director when he won Senate confirmation in July of 2013. He left in early 2015 to join the NFL as its new chief disciplinary officer. President Trump’s nominee, Chuck Canterbury, an ex-police union official, didn’t fare much better despite Trump’s close relationship with the NRA, which takes credit for his election in 2016 by motivating rural voters in record numbers. Trump was forced to withdraw the nomination over some anodyne comment Canterbury had made about the value of background checks.

The White House is working with Senator King to come up with a nominee he can support, but that likely won’t happen until early next year. In the meantime, there are critical challenges for the ATF. The biggest fight is around ghost guns, which are not regulated in the same way as traditional firearms and have become the dominant weapon recovered in crimes. The ATF has the power to promulgate rules on ghost guns and arm braces by the end of the year. Arm braces are used to stabilize the arm so more rounds can be fired off quickly.

“No confirmed director makes it harder to do these things, but there’s still a lot the ATF can do,” said Zack DiGregorio, EveryTown’s national press secretary. “The gun lobby can keep pushing disinformation all day long, but the NRA is a shell of its former self, and the country still strongly supports gun safety. It’s really hard to fight a 90-10 issue. One of the only places where background checks are controversial is the United States Senate.”

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