During his Senate confirmation hearing on May 26, Joe Biden’s nominee to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), David Chipman, was asked to define an “assault weapon.” For someone being considered for such a position, especially with his decades of experience lobbying for stricter gun control laws (and as an ATF special agent), the question from Sen. Tom Cotton should have been a soft ball. Instead, Chipman whiffed like a little leaguer going up against Nolan Ryan.
After sputtering through some nonsensical gobbledygook, Chipman finally declared that an “assault weapon” is “any semi-automatic rifle capable of accepting a detachable magazine above the caliber of .22.” Really?
If the ATF nominee actually believes what he said, it represents an unprecedented expansion of the general definition of “assault weapon” even as has been used by Democrats for decades in crafting gun control legislation. Regardless of whether his response reflected a degree of careful analysis, or was simply a poorly crafted off-the-cuff answer, the statement by itself disqualifies him for the job.
Anyone who has ever debated gun control advocates on this issue, or on any matter related to the Second Amendment, surely has observed the disparity between knowledge of firearms and the intensity with which liberals make their arguments against them. In fact, the two traits appear inversely proportional, with often the loudest advocates of gun control having the least knowledge about firearms and the Second Amendment. A perfect example of this dichotomy is the loud but ignorant gun-control hero, Parkland High School alumnus David Hogg.
This ignorance does not exist in a vacuum, and it has real-world consequences. As Reason’s Jacob Sullum outlines in a piece detailing why California’s “assault weapon” ban recently was struck down by a federal judge, the entire premise of the law was based on a fundamental lack of understanding (intentional or otherwise) of the firearms that were banned. This misunderstanding led to decades of unconstitutional deprivation of California citizens’ Second Amendment rights, not to mention expensive legal fights defending the ill-conceived law.
For decades, the Left has pushed openly to ban so-called “assault weapons;” either by piecemeal chipping away at characteristics common to rifles such as the popular “AR-15” platform, or by simply declaring them as a class of firearms to be unlawful. In this environment, it is incomprehensible that someone like Chipman, who has years of experience lobbying for such bans, does not know the definitional basis of what it is he is asking Congress to enact. Nobody in his position can, or at least should be that dim.
This leaves the only plausible excuse for Chipman’s answer to be that he does, in fact, believe the definition of “assault rifles” to encompass nearly every modern sporting rifle. Should this be an accurate reflection of his views, the man represents the very worst case for serving as director of ATF.
As I have often written, the important future battles over gun control will not so much be waged in the halls of Congress as they will be in America’s bureaucratic swamp via rule-making processes. These actions remain largely out of the public eye and rarely are checked by Congress, which makes zealots like Chipman especially dangerous.
Driven by both a personal agenda and a mandate from the Oval Office, Chipman’s broad definition of “assault weapon” makes clear he would use the ATF’s equally broad regulatory powers in new and dangerous ways. Already the ATF has signaled its desire to readdress the definition of pistol braces used on common AR- and AK-style pistols, essentially rendering them unlawful.
More dangerous still is the recently published ATF proposal to completely redefine what constitutes a firearm’s “frame or receiver” and the manner by which firearms are to be identified. This far-reaching proposal would upend decades of firearms laws and regulations, and would open the door to massive expansion of the ways in which ATF could control the manufacture, retail, and tracking of all firearms.
With Chipman or a similarly incompetent individual at the helm of ATF being but a phone call or email directive away from gun control advocates in Congress or non-governmental advocacy groups, the harm to the industry and to individual gun owners could be devastating, even if Republicans are able to wrest control of the Congress from the Democrats in next year’s election.
Bob Barr represented Georgia’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He served as the United States Attorney in Atlanta from 1986 to 1990 and was an official with the CIA in the 1970s. He now practices law in Atlanta, Georgia and serves as head of Liberty Guard.