Cracking Down on Ghost Guns

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S1: For 25 years. David Chipman was an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

S2: Well, there were a lot of things that aren’t like TV.

S1: He investigated major events like the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. But a lot of his job revolved around smaller scale tragedies involving deadly gun violence. At the beginning of his career, he decided that this work was worthy of the full measure of his devotion, even if it involved dangerous moments in the field.

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S2: And that becomes clear when you’re sacrificing your life, right? Like at some point during a number of SWAT operations, like just a function with that ever present fear, you sort of had to calculate that you were okay with dying.

S1: Chipman rose up the ranks as an ATF agent and eventually took charge of the bureau’s entire firearms program. But along the way, he became disillusioned. He’d been willing to die in service of the mission he thought he’d been given to reduce gun violence. But he started to wonder if other people, powerful people, actually wanted this mission to succeed.

S2: My frustration was with the government itself, and actually members of the government and lobbies were trying to actively prevent me from solving crime. But like by the end of my career, I was left with a fact. Like, I don’t believe everyone views gun violence as a problem. And in fact, some people see it as an opportunity.

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S1: After leaving ATF about a decade ago, Chipman became an advisor to gun control organizations. He did that work until last year, when President Biden asked him to come full circle and return to the ATF as its director. Chipman was excited to do the job, but in the end he couldn’t get confirmed. Pro-gun groups successfully lobbied against him. Last week, President Biden named a new ATF nominee. At the same time, the president announced new rules regulating so-called ghost guns, virtually untraceable firearms. It seems we’re headed for another showdown over personnel and policy as various pro-gun groups once again gear up to stop any regulatory efforts in their tracks.

S2: The lobby that supports gun manufacturers has been very effective, ensuring not only that there are very few regulatory laws, but that there are gaping loopholes that allows them to profit from selling guns to criminals or extremists. And the most recent iteration of that is ghost guns, and that is the ability now as an anti American, to build a gun with the same lethality. There’s something I would carry on ATF SWAT team.

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S1: Today on the show, David Chipman has devoted his entire professional life to stopping gun violence, and he’s met with obstacles, many within his own government every step of the way. Does he think this latest skirmish over ghost guns will play out differently? And does he see any path forward toward a profound and lasting shift in America’s relationship with firearms? I’m Seth Stevenson, filling in for Marie Harris. You’re listening to What Next? Stick around. President Biden recently announced some new efforts to regulate ghost guns, requiring them to be treated like other normal firearms made and sold in the U.S..

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S3: The NRA called this rule I’m about to announce extreme, extreme. But let me ask you, is it extreme to protect police officers? Extreme to protect our children? Extreme to keep guns out of the hands of people who couldn’t even pass a background check.

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S1: Ghost guns are often put together by unlicensed individuals using parts from ready to assemble kits or 3D printers. These made at home guns are meant to be untraceable. Under Biden’s efforts, people who buy the kits would undergo background checks, and some pieces used to assemble the weapons would be given serial numbers.

S2: There are hobbyists who would go into a gun store and they would buy a frame or receiver. The frame a 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. And 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.

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S1: How easy is it for someone to put together a ghost gun if they get the parts? Is this something that, you know, like a teenager could do? Do you need a lot of expertise to put it together?

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S2: Well, I would say that it’s as easy as assembling, you know, a piece of furniture that you acquire from Wayfair. I think it’s that easy. I think that there’s been plenty of reporting of people that have been brought who don’t really have any expertise parts, even.

S4: The drill bits in a plastic template showing exactly where to drill the holes. Following an instructional YouTube video. It took less than 3 hours to build.

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S2: And the main difference is 20 years ago, the only people could build guns in this way were people who had expensive machining tools, knew how to deal with metals. Now, you know, 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.

S1: In terms of things like price or how easy it is to get these parts. How do ghost guns compare to to regular guns? Is it any harder or easier to get a ghost gun than a regular gun?

S2: 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.

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S1: When did law enforcement agencies start seeing ghost guns showing up regularly as weapons that get used in crimes?

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S2: I’d say like 2016, 2017. I remember in 2018 I was a member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and they have a firearms committee. And this firearms committee welcomed the ATF to brief the Committee on Trends in Gun Violence. And the committee members were very interested to hear from ATF about this emerging threat. 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. And 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. I mean, ATF is a regulator and they were making a pitch for the gun industry to a law enforcement group.

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S1: The Biden administration just announced a new policy aimed at cracking down on ghost guns. What was your reaction to that announcement?

S2: Well, it was two fold. 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, you know, the president and the administration has done what they think they can do under the law, but that falls short of solving this problem.

S1: Some pro-gun groups are already calling the new ghost guns rule an overreach and saying it violates federal law. I guess I’d ask you first, are there valid arguments against this new policy? And second, how likely does it seem that these pro-gun groups would be able to block enforcement of the policy?

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S2: Yeah, 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.

S1: 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 my question is, is the Biden administration just targeting low hanging fruit here, doing something easy when the real problem is actually much larger in scope?

S2: 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.

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S1: More with David Chipman after the break. At the same event where President Biden announced these new ghost gun rules. He also nominated Steve Darrell back 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?

S2: I guess 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 and familiar that 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 four years without a confirmed secretary of defense.

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S1: In March of 2021, President Biden nominated you to lead the ATF, but your nomination was withdrawn in September of that year. What happened?

S2: Well, I think the key moment that I understood what happened is when I was having a meeting with Senator King from Maine. Senator King, for those who don’t know caucuses with Democrats in the Senate, although he’s an independent, he was viewed as a key foe 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 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 an 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.

S1: And 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 Biden, the ATF pick, Steve Guttenberg. The email vowed to use the same successful playbook that had been used to block David Chipman. Which made me wonder what would the ATF look like right now if Chipman had been confirmed?

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S2: Well, I think I would be talking more is the main thing. I think what 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. I mean, there’s 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, is they attempted to cover up the problem by putting a good light on it, that now this is just, you know, 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.

S1: 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?

S2: I think ATF will always fall short of an agency prioritizing the prevention of gun violence over a comfortable and cosy and non-confrontational relationship with the gun industry. Absent an outside confirmed director, the moment that the person who is regulated has the power to pick their director. You have a captured agency.

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S1: What would the pro-gun groups say the role of an ATF director should be? What’s their argument for? For what that person should be doing?

S2: 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 arm themselves to 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.

S1: In terms of policy and law. Where do you think the line is between things that practically could happen in terms of changing law? And what are the things that are just beyond the line where they’ll just never happen? There’s just not the political will to do them ever.

S2: There is an abundance of research now, and you can see that at the Giffords Law Center, where it’s quite clear that states with robust gun regulations suffer far fewer acts of gun violence than those states that do not. There are things that we can do to make gun violence less likely, and states are doing those things and they’re making their states far safer. But like many things, we have to have a national approach. And so background checks, banning ghost guns, you know, licensing a number of the things that we need to do to really take a bite out of the gun violence epidemic. We need to do federally. And that’s going to take different members of Senate being elected.

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S1: You mentioned the statistics on states that have more robust gun regulations. The statistics are clear that other countries that don’t allow guns just don’t have the same number of shootings that we have here. Is there an emotional reason we keep accepting these numbers? Is there a better way to change hearts and minds when it comes to gun policy?

S2: Well, I think for many of us, there’s a sense of hopelessness that nothing can be changed. I mean, you sort of see that with COVID, right? We’re exhausted by it. So I think that is a real human phenomena. There’s the reality that our Constitution protects the right to own a gun and our Supreme Court is upheld that individual right. So that decision has been made. And it would take, you know, the passage of a constitutional amendment to change that footing, which seems unlikely. My belief is just because something’s hard and it’s a life or death issue doesn’t mean that we can’t, you know, give up. But, you know, I don’t want to sugarcoat it. 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’s 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 falsely mischaracterize communities of color as being somehow more violent. There are all these other political forces that actually benefit from the gun violence problem. And so perhaps that’s something we can do as people like me, who’s been inside government now, who maybe can see things more clearly, just have to talk more candidly about what we’re really up against until the day. We don’t have senators saying to me like, Hey, gun violence isn’t a problem. It’s not going to be treated like one.

S1: David Chipman, thanks for coming on the show.

S2: Thanks. So.

S1: David Chipman is a senior policy advisor at Giffords Courage to Fight Gun Violence. And that’s the show. What next is produced by Mary Wilson Alina Schwartz and Carmel Delshad. We’re getting a ton of help from Anna Rubanova and Laura Spencer. We are led by our executive producer, Joanne Levine and Alicia montgomery. I’m Seth Stevenson, filling in for Mary Harris. Get you back in this feed tomorrow.