Retailers of ghost gun parts are holding fire sales on the eve of new federal rule meant to curb the proliferation of homemade, untraceable weapons.
The new regulations from the Biden administration, which go into effect on August 24, will require that all parts used to manufacture ghost guns are serialized and that purchasers undergo a background check. While the rule will regulate all future sales of ghost guns, it will not have an effect on the potentially millions of ghost gun kits that are already in circulation.
With the deadline to sell kits of unserialized parts looming, sellers are running countdown clocks on their websites. “We’re committed to shipping out all orders prior to the ATF rule being enforced,” reads a banner atop one dealer’s website. “Biden’s new receiver rules take effect in less than two weeks,” reminds another. The frenzy has exhausted many dealers’ inventories.
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Other dealers are urging customers to financially support the slew of oncoming lawsuits directed at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the federal agency tasked with enforcing the new regulations.
“The companies have been dumping parts kits on the market, and they’re going to sell them right up until [the rule goes into effect],” said a California law enforcement agent who specializes in arms trafficking. “There are going to be people with storage lockers full of these things.”
Ghost guns, a blanket term for unserialized and homemade firearms, first emerged as a creation of hobbyists and at-home gunsmiths in the late 1980s. But in recent years, aided by a rapidly expanding gun industry, they’ve become more widely available and popular, and favored by criminals. They are inexpensive, easy to procure, and have long existed outside of the government’s regulatory eye. Kits to assemble ghost guns — which provide buyers with most of the pieces of a firearm — are the basis of the overwhelming majority of ghost guns sold to the public and used in crimes.
Federal data shows that ghost gun recoveries in crimes have increased exponentially. Between 2016 and 2021 the number of homemade guns recovered at crime scenes increased 1000 percent, according to a report by the ATF. Out of the roughly 45,000 ghost guns recovered during that time period, nearly 700 were linked to homicides or attempted homicides.
One recent example came in March, when a man under a restraining order walked into a Sacramento church and killed his three daughters and their caretaker before shooting himself. The attacker, who was prohibited from gun ownership and out on bail for punching a cop days earlier, was able to acquire a ghost gun to carry out his assault. In July, a man armed with a homemade gun and knife killed a family of three who were camping in an Iowa state park. And in Florida, a 17-year-old girl fatally shot herself by accident while handling her cousin’s ghost gun.
With an untold number of untraceable homemade firearm kits already sold to the public, law enforcement agents expect that criminals will still be able to get their hands on unserialized guns.
“The proverbial barn door has been left open when it comes to the ghost gun loophole,” said Scot Thomasson, a consultant and former ATF agent. “Now the real work begins following the implementation of the regulation: dealing with the guns already in criminals’ hands.”
The ATF has long struggled to find an effective strategy to police unserialized weapons. In fact, the agency’s own internal rulings set the stage for the massive increase in ghost gun kit sales, when in 2013 and 2017 its Firearms Technology Branch clarified that partially completed receiver parts should not be treated as firearms and should not be subject to background checks.
After a slew of high-profile shootings, including mass shootings and domestic terror attacks, the Biden administration changed the rule to try to get a handle on the situation. It was quickly rebuked by gun rights organizations. In a 90-day public comment period, the ATF received nearly 300,000 responses regarding the ghost gun rule, the most for any rule change in the agency’s history.
Federal agents say the new ghost gun rule gives them an edge in their efforts to combat arms trafficking, shootings, and other gun-related crimes. “The new rule for privately made firearms is really going to help law enforcement, primarily because one of the tools that ATF utilizes to help stop firearms trafficking is tracing,” said Matthew Varisco, a special agent in charge of the ATF’s Philadelphia office.
With background checks required for ghost gun kit sales, agents now say they will have an investigative lead when they are used in crimes.
Most of the ATF’s ghost gun efforts will fall to its regulatory inspection force, which has historically struggled with staffing and low budgets, and has been overwhelmingly conciliatory to noncompliant gun dealers. The agency said that combating the proliferation of ghost guns is a task that will require an array of local and state law enforcement partners, city leaders, and communities affected by violence.
“I think that we stop it by taking a holistic approach,” said Charlie Patterson, a special agent in charge of the ATF’s Washington, D.C., office. “I think it’s sharing that information and intelligence. I think it’s breaking those silos down and having meaningful conversations with the community’s input as well about how we can address this issue.”
Several impatient state legislatures have instituted their own rules targeting ghost guns in advance of federal action. California, an early epicenter of criminal ghost gun use, enacted a law regulating unserialized weapons in 2016. State lawmakers subsequently stiffened the law three years later, requiring background checks and sales records for vendors selling firearm precursor parts.
Laws either regulating or outright banning the sale of untraceable weapons have also been enacted by Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Washington, and the District of Columbia.
States and cities have also targeted the manufacturers and sellers of parts kits in court. Last year, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department levied a lawsuit at Polymer80, a manufacturer of ghost gun parts kits, after a man carrying a firearm made from one of the company’s kits to ambush two deputies. Baltimore and New York took similar routes, with the NYPD revealing that 90 percent of the ghost guns it had recovered included parts from the company. Washington, D.C., sued Polymer80 after finding its products at local crime scenes, and was recently awarded a $4 million judgment.
Polymer80 did not respond to requests for comment on the upcoming rule change.
“Every year was significantly worse than the one prior. So if the federal government hadn’t stepped in to do something, the problem just continued to get worse,” said David Pucino, deputy chief counsel for Giffords Law Center. The very nature of arms trafficking, and the vast distances that guns can move, means localized efforts struggle to be potent. “Those attempts have not really been very effective because they didn’t get to the supply. They didn’t get to the parts that are used to make ghost guns,” he said. “And what this rule does is it goes right up the supply chain.”
Gun control groups say the federal rule change is only as good as its enforcement. Three years after New York State passed a 2013 law requiring assault weapons be registered, only about 44,000 out of an estimated 1 million weapons were registered. A similar law passed at the same time in Connecticut resulted in the registration of only 50,000 weapons — out of an estimated 400,000 — in the state.
There is no known estimate of how many ghost guns are in circulation, or how effective existing legislation to regulate their ownership is. California was the earliest state to require all ghost guns to be serialized. The state Attorney General’s Office failed to respond to multiple requests for comment on the efficacy of the legislation, or to provide data on compliance.
Indeed, some experts aren’t optimistic that the federal rule change will have an immediate effect. “The reality is that there is a supply of these kits in circulation,” said the California law enforcement agent. “And until this supply is exhausted, we’ll continue to see these.”