President Joe Biden wants Congress to ban "assault weapons," and so does David Chipman, his nominee to run the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). But neither Biden nor Chipman will say what that term means, and their obfuscation makes it impossible to take their proposal seriously.
Chipman, who worked as an ATF special agent for 25 years and later served as a senior policy adviser to the gun control group Giffords, was repeatedly asked to define assault weapon during his Senate confirmation hearing last month, and he repeatedly dodged the question. Given Chipman's long experience as both an ATF agent and a gun control advocate, his evasiveness cannot plausibly be ascribed to a lack of preparation or knowledge. Instead it seems to be an intentional strategy designed to avoid exposing the illogic of targeting firearms based on their "military-style" appearance.
"I have a simple question for you," Sen. Tom Cotton (R–Ark.) said. "What is an assault weapon?"
Chipman's answer not only was not simple; it was not really an answer at all. "An assault weapon would be, in the context of the question you asked, whatever Congress defines it as," he told Cotton. That much is true: The "assault weapon" legal category was invented by politicians, who define it however they want. But "in the context of the question" that Cotton asked—the scope of the federal ban that Biden and Chipman support—that observation clarified nothing. The senator wanted to know which firearms Chipman thinks Congress should ban, and the nominee replied that Congress would have to make that decision.
"You're asking us to ban assault weapons," Cotton noted. "We have to write legislation. Can you tell me what is an assault weapon? How would you define it if you were the head of the ATF? How have you defined it over the last several years [in] your role as a gun control advocate?"
Chipman tried a different dodge, referring to an ATF requirement that federally licensed gun dealers near the southern border report multiple sales of certain rifles. "That program," he said, "has defined an assault rifle as any semi-automatic rifle capable of accepting a detachable magazine" that holds ammunition "above the .22 caliber, which would include the .223, which is largely the AR-15 round."
That definition is much broader than the ones used in the 1994 federal "assault weapon" ban, which expired in 2004; the new, supposedly improved version backed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D–Calif.); and state bans such as California's, which a federal judge recently deemed unconstitutional. While those laws do not refer to caliber, they list forbidden features such as folding stocks, pistol grips, barrel shrouds, and flash suppressors.
Since the ATF definition requires none of those features, it covers many firearms that remain legal in California and would remain legal under Feinstein's bill. Feinstein's Assault Weapons Ban of 2021 specifically exempts the Iver Johnson M1 carbine and the Ruger Mini-14 rifle, for example, as long as they have fixed stocks. Although a folding or adjustable stock does not make these guns any deadlier or render them easily concealable, Feinstein thinks it is enough to transform legitimate firearms into guns that are good for nothing but mass murder, which gives you a sense of the puzzling distinctions drawn by such laws.
The definition that Chipman cited, by contrast, encompasses both of these guns, regardless of whether they have fixed stocks. It also would cover the stripped-down, California-legal versions of AR-15-style rifles and all hunting rifles that accept detachable magazines and fire anything larger than .22 rounds. Cotton asked Chipman if he was suggesting that Congress should ban all of these guns, which lack the features that legislators have always used to define "assault weapons."
Chipman wouldn't say. "You asked me if ATF had used this term, and I was sharing with you my knowledge of a program in which ATF has defined this term," he told Cotton. But while the senator mentioned Chipman's possible role as director of the ATF, he also asked how Chipman has defined assault weapon "as a gun control advocate." Although that should not have been a hard question, answering it would have invited uncomfortable follow-up questions about the arbitrariness of "assault weapon" laws.
Instead Cotton made that point directly. "I think our exchange here illustrates that there really is no such thing as an assault weapon," he said. "That is a term that was manufactured by liberal lawyers and pollsters in Washington, to try to scare the American people into believing that the government should confiscate weapons that are wildly popular [among] millions of Americans to defend themselves and their families and their homes."
Later in the hearing, Sen. John Kennedy (R–La.) also asked Chipman to "define assault weapons." Chipman responded in the same maddening way he had to Cotton's question, saying "assault weapons would be something that members of Congress would define." When Kennedy pressed Chipman to say how Congress should do that and noted that he had "35 seconds left" in that round of questioning, the nominee claimed it was impossible to give a brief answer. "The bill to ban assault weapons is thousands of pages," he said. "There's no way I could define an assault weapon in 35 seconds." Presumably Chipman knows "assault weapons" when he sees them, but that subjective approach is inconsistent with the rule of law.
Contrary to Chipman's claim, Feinstein's bill is not "thousands of pages." It is 125 pages long, and most of that space is devoted to a redundant list of specifically permitted models. The general definition of rifles that qualify as "assault weapons" is just a few paragraphs. It includes any semi-automatic rifle that accepts a detachable magazine and has "a pistol grip," "a forward grip," a folding or telescoping stock, "a grenade launcher," "a barrel shroud," or "a threaded barrel." Assuming that Chipman's definition is similar, he easily could have said so, even in 35 seconds. But then he might have been asked how these features—which have nothing to do with caliber, rate of fire, or muzzle velocity—make "assault weapons" an intolerable threat to public safety.
Biden himself has conceded that the 1994 "assault weapon" ban had no impact on the lethality of legally available firearms, precisely because manufacturers could comply with the law simply by eliminating the targeted features. The president supports a new ban that would somehow "stop gun manufacturers from circumventing the law by making minor modifications to their products—modifications that leave them just as deadly." But Feinstein's bill would not accomplish that feat, and Biden has never explained how a ban based on a similar approach possibly could.
Chipman's reticence is of a piece with Biden's vagueness. It is impossible to rationally debate the merits of a policy when its advocates refuse to explain what they have in mind. That seems to be the point.