Last week, President Joe Biden nominated Steve Dettelbach to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF. At the same time, Biden announced new rules regulating so-called ghost guns—firearms that are often put together by unlicensed individuals, using parts from ready-to-assemble kits or 3D printers. These made-at-home guns are virtually untraceable. Under Biden’s proposed regulations, people who buy the kits would undergo background checks, and some pieces used to assemble the weapons would be given serial numbers. In other words, they’d be treated like normal firearms made and sold in the U.S.
A showdown over personnel and policy appears inevitable. Biden tried to fill this post last year with former career ATF agent David Chipman, but his nomination was stymied by opposition from pro-gun groups. On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke to Chipman about the threat of ghost guns and what the administration and the ATF should do to curb gun violence. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
David Chipman: There are hobbyists who would go into a gun store and they would buy a frame or receiver. The frame or receiver is sort of like the motherboard of a computer, or perhaps the chassis of a car, and it’s the key part that you need to buy a gun. So when you go into a gun store, that part has a serial number on it. It’s marked by who made it. And you have to pass a background check to buy it, even though that part you can’t shoot or anything—it’s just the basis of a gun.
A ghost gun is a gun that’s manufactured absent that marked part. And really, the only reason to manufacture a gun that way is if you’re someone who wants to avoid a background check, such as a criminal or an extremist. There is no reason to do this. It’s not fun to make a frame or receiver.
Seth Stevenson: How easy is it for someone to put together a ghost gun if they get the parts? Do you need a lot of expertise to put it together?
I would say that it’s as easy as assembling a piece of furniture that you acquire from Wayfair.
Twenty years ago, the only people who could build guns in this way were people who had expensive machining tools, knew how to deal with metals. Now, a 3D printer can be used to print this frame or receiver, and then you would go online and buy kits that have all the other parts you need.
In terms of things like price or how easy it is to get these parts, how do ghost guns compare to regular guns? Is it any harder or easier to get a ghost gun than a regular gun?
If you bought a completed gun from a gun store, you would have to go into that store. You would have to fill out paperwork and you would have to pass a background check. By buying kits, it’s certainly probably around the same price, but you’re anonymous. You’re able to do it outside of any government regulation. Like, why would I want to build my own car absent any markings? This is not about hobbyists. This is about an avenue that’s purposely set up so that people who should not have guns can easily get them.
When did law enforcement agencies start seeing ghost guns showing up regularly as weapons that get used in crimes?
I’d say 2016, 2017. I remember in 2018 I was a member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and they have a firearms committee. This firearms committee welcomed the ATF to brief the committee on trends in gun violence. And I at least was shocked when an ATF attorney came in and started talking about ghost guns, and his position was that they were not a problem.
He tried to prove it by showing us the ghost gun he had made in his own home and tried to articulate that this wasn’t a threat of public safety, this was just simply hobbyists, and it was really the responsibility of state or local police to just arrest people after the fact if they used one of these guns and not to complicate the lives of hobbyists. And to me, it was really crystal-clear that ATF had jumped the shark. ATF is a regulator, and they were making a pitch for the gun industry to a law enforcement group.
The Biden administration just announced a new policy aimed at cracking down on ghost guns. What was your reaction to that announcement?
It was twofold. It was like, that’s good, but it wasn’t enough. What needs to happen is that Congress needs to ban these guns. They need to pass a law that requires that individuals who want to make guns have to buy that serialized and marked part from a gun store. But the president and the administration has done what they think they can do under the law, but that falls short of solving this problem.
Some pro-gun groups are already calling the new ghost guns rule an overreach and saying it violates federal law. Are there valid arguments against this new policy? And how likely does it seem that these pro-gun groups would be able to block enforcement of the policy?
I think they’re going to fail. I think that DOJ does not pass regulations that are risky or things that they think they can lose. It doesn’t surprise me that pro-gun folks who think there should be no regulations on guns should oppose this.
I’m talking to you from Brooklyn. There was a very recent subway shooting here that was extremely scary for all of us who use public transit here. That crime didn’t involve a ghost gun. So, is the Biden administration just targeting low-hanging fruit here, doing something easy when the real problem is actually much larger in scope?
There is always more that this administration and every administration can do to prioritize gun violence, to prioritize our approach. But in this case, if we’re trying to pick villains or people who have fallen short, it’s really the gun industry and those elected officials that support them that have created a situation by design, and that is that gun violence is just really profitable.
Biden also nominated Steve Dettelbach to serve as the new director of the ATF. Are you familiar with him? Do you have an opinion of whether he’s a good choice?
My first reaction is that he is completely qualified for this job. In fact, the last confirmed and only confirmed ATF director, B. Todd Jones, had a similar background to this nominee. This nominee has supported background checks. He clearly supports the current president’s gun violence prevention agenda, and I hope that the administration learned some lessons from my failed confirmation, learned some lessons from their successful Supreme Court confirmation recently, and can get ATF a confirmed director, which is absolutely essential. We’re in a situation where ATF has only had one confirmed director in history. Can you imagine if we went for years without a confirmed secretary of defense?
In March of 2021, Biden nominated you to lead the ATF, but your nomination was withdrawn in September of that year. What happened?
The key moment that I understood what happened is when I was having a meeting with Sen. King from Maine. Sen. King caucuses with Democrats in the Senate, although he’s an independent. He was viewed as a key vote to my nomination because we suspected that it was unlikely that any Republican would support me. And in the meeting he was very clear about why he was not going to vote for me. He said, Dave, you have to understand gun violence isn’t a problem in Maine, and you have to also understand that I can’t vote for you because you don’t have the endorsement of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which is the lobby of the gun industry.
That was shocking in a couple of ways. It was first shocking how open he was at saying those things to me. Clearly, gun violence is a problem for our nation, and for him to take the view that as a senator he would only vote for things he perceived as important to Maine was disappointing. It was also disappointing how open he was about his criticism, that somehow I wasn’t endorsed by the industry that I would have to regulate.
The industry is already mobilizing against Biden’s new pick for the ATF. The American Firearms Association sent out an email recently urging its members and supporters to agitate against Steve Dettelbach. The email vowed to use the same successful playbook that had been used to block you—which made me wonder, what would the ATF look like right now if you had been confirmed?
I would be talking more, is the main thing. What I am frustrated about is I think that the public needs to have a constant and consistent dialogue with the members of government that serve them. ATF isn’t holding town halls with members of the public describing what’s happening with gun violence; why it’s spiking; if they were in Congress, what laws they would pass to make ATF’s job better. And I think that is the role of ATF—just deliver hard, uncomfortable scientific truths about what’s going on, and then leave it up to others to decide what to do.
It’s quite clear that ATF director isn’t making policy or law, but I think that there is a role to being able to more publicly and articulately and transparently describe the why of things that are going on. That’s not going on. As I said, with ghost guns, ATF was doing the opposite. They should have known that there was a problem brewing, and what they did was they attempted to cover up the problem by putting a good light on it—that, no, this is just what hobbyists are up to. I think any law enforcement official today would understand that ghost guns are not primarily what hobbyists are up to. They’re what criminals and extremists are doing to make our streets less safe.
If someone with your background couldn’t get confirmed at the ATF, do you still have hope that the agency can be an effective force in reducing gun violence?
I think ATF will always fall short of an agency prioritizing the prevention of gun violence over a comfortable and cozy and nonconfrontational relationship with the gun industry, absent an outside confirmed director. The moment that the person who is regulated has the power to pick the director, you have a captured agency.
What would the pro-gun groups say the role of an ATF director should be? What’s their argument for what that person should be doing?
Well, the pro-gun groups would argue that there should be no ATF. I think where much of the debate is today is that they believe in their constitutional view that the ownership of guns is some sort of birthright and that there is this insurrectionist belief that one of the reasons for the Second Amendment was so that the public could take up arms against the government themselves. And so I think there needs to be some kind of structure, just like we have with cars, to take a lawful product and do what we can to make sure that it’s used lawfully and doesn’t cause unintended harms.
Is there a better way to change hearts and minds when it comes to gun policy?
I think for many of us there’s a sense of hopelessness, that nothing can be changed. You sort of see that with COVID—we’re exhausted by it. So I think that is a real human phenomenon. There’s the reality that our Constitution protects the right to own a gun, and our Supreme Court has upheld that individual right. …
This is very hard, and it’s unlike other problems that we face where the people that oppose change that would make our country safer don’t do so because they disagree with our approach. They disagree with the fact that there is a problem. They don’t think gun violence is a problem. They think it’s a way to make money. They think it’s a way to mischaracterize communities of color as being somehow more violent. There are all these other political forces that actually benefit from the gun violence problem.