Ghost gun dealers have already found ways around the Biden administration’s effort to curb the sale of homemade, untraceable firearms.
A rule that went into effect on August 24 requires sellers to serialize “ready to build” ghost gun kits and conduct background checks on prospective buyers. As The Trace and CBS News reported, the impending regulation from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives prompted a fire sale of kits from dealers looking to offload their inventories. Now that the rule is in effect, sellers are simply offering ghost gun parts for sale individually.
“We’re still shipping!” reads one dealer’s website. “ATF Rule Change has no impact on our business,” declares another. Both sellers offer nearly finished rifle receivers, which can be put together to make a functional firearm in a few hours with readily available tools.
The Biden administration directed the ATF to regulate ghost guns after they were used in a spate of high-profile shootings and increasing evidence emerged that homemade weapons are being used in crimes. A recent ATF report found that ghost gun recoveries increased 1000 percent between 2016 and 2021. A total of 45,000 unserialized weapons were recovered in that time period; nearly 700 were linked to homicides or attempted homicides.
The White House presented the rule change as an effective way to reduce the number of homemade, untraceable weapons in circulation and save lives. But experts say sellers’ behavior shows the regulation may have little tangible effect on the criminal use of homemade firearms.
“It is broadly ineffective,” said Bernard Zapor, a retired ATF special agent in charge who now teaches at Arizona State University. “Ghost guns will continue to provide a significant hurdle to tracking gun violence and solving crimes.”
Zapor said the rule speaks to the Biden administration’s inability to marshall Congress to pass gun legislation. “[The White House is] exploiting the vulnerability of a regulatory agency by not having a national legislative effort to impact firearm violence.”
The Gun Control Act of 1968 allows individuals who can lawfully possess a firearm to manufacture their own weapons for personal use, without the need of serialization or background checks.
Parts to create firearms can be sold by dealers without regulation from the ATF and purchased without a background check. The most important part of a gun is the receiver, the core component that houses a firearm’s controls. The ATF has held for nearly 20 years that it will not regulate a receiver unless it was more than 80 percent completed. This prompted the gun industry to start selling “80 percent receivers,” which can easily be finished at home with the help of a few additional parts. Because the receivers fell at or below the 80 percent threshold, both buyer and seller avoided any form of regulation.
In the last decade, sellers made the process simpler, offering kits containing an 80 percent receiver alongside the parts required to finish the firearm. These parts kits allowed consumers to purchase an entire unassembled firearm without a background check, and they soon exploded in popularity among criminals.
In response to a request for comment, the ATF pointed to the new rules, which now define ghost gun parts kits as completed firearms. “There are no such requirements for anyone selling items that are not defined as firearms, frames, or receivers,” said Erik Longnecker, a spokesperson for the ATF.
At least 10 states have passed their own laws to regulate or ban the sale of ghost guns. Several cities, including Washington., D.C., New York , Los Angeles, and Baltimore, have also filed lawsuits against ghost gun manufacturers whose products have been used in crimes.
The federal rule change was hotly contested by the gun industry, which argued that the move could lead to an eventual federal firearm owner registry. In August, a federal judge in North Dakota rejected a lawsuit levied by gun-rights groups and 17 states to block the new regulations.
“This is sort of the standard pattern,” said John Donohue, a professor of law and economics at Stanford University. “The industry fights regulation, then guts regulation, and at the very least, leaves themselves an easy workaround.”