How the A.T.F., Key to Biden’s Gun Plan, Became an N.R.A. ‘Whipping Boy’

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The mere presence of a permanent leader, like Mr. Chipman, has the potential to be transformative, former agency officials said.

“I was never the president’s guy, and being the president’s person means people are less likely to push back against you,” said Mr. Brandon, the former interim director. “It gives you a lot more street cred.”

Mr. Chipman served as a special agent during a 22-year A.T.F. career that ended in 2010, first in the bureau’s hectic Detroit office, then in stints working the Interstate 95 corridor, the country’s biggest conduit for illegal firearms, and at bureau headquarters. There, he told the website The Tracee, he observed “the catastrophic downsides of the gun lobby efforts to block the A.T.F. from modernizing.”

Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who became a gun-control activist after being severely wounded in an assassination attempt, began pushing, along with other gun safety groups, for Mr. Chipman’s hiring in mid-November, shortly after Mr. Biden was elected, according to several people with knowledge of the situation.

But for weeks after the inauguration, the White House and its allies in the Senate stalled, in part to spare gun-friendly Democrats, like Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, from a tough vote when they were focused on the pandemic and spending bills.

The shootings that left 18 people dead in Atlanta and Boulder, Colo., in mid-March changed that.

Soon afterward, Ms. Giffords wrote to Mr. Biden, asking him to meet with her to discuss Mr. Chipman. By that time, Mr. Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, had thrown his support behind Mr. Chipman, and Mr. Biden later told Ms. Giffords that he was prepared “to fight” for the nomination, according to an administration official with knowledge of the exchange.

Almost immediately, the N.R.A. announced plans to spend $2 million to defeat Mr. Chipman, cutting an ad targeting Senator Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine.

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