The Biden administration is closing a major loophole in a new federal rule intended to regulate the sale of pistol parts that can readily be turned into untraceable homemade firearms, in a crackdown on so-called ghost guns. On Tuesday, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) directed vendors who sell partially finished frames of Glock-style handguns, the pistol grip and firing mechanism, to treat them like fully completed firearms, which are subject to federal regulations. Sellers must mark the parts with serial numbers, and buyers must undergo criminal background checks. The guidance could severely restrict the sale of unregulated and untraceable “80 percent” frames and receivers that have been linked to thousands of crimes, a goal of the gun control movement, reports the New York Times. The move would be among the most significant actions President Biden has taken to fulfill a campaign promise to stem the scourge of handgun violence, an effort highlighted by a bipartisan gun deal in June. In August, Biden announced approval of a new federal rule on ghost guns that imposed requirements on ready-made kits, which include all the parts needed to assemble a workable firearm in under an hour. Federal officials said this month that the ATF leadership had done little to stop retailers from continuing to sell the unfinished, unregulated frames. Under the new guidance, vendors and manufacturers who fail to comply with technical requirements would face penalties ranging from the possible loss of their federal licenses to criminal prosecution. Dozens of online retailers, using the narrowest possible interpretation of the rule, have sold core components used to make ghost guns.
Gun safety groups, which had pressured ATF director Steven Dettelbach to act more decisively, said the letter represented a major step in addressing the growing problem of ghost guns, which have contributed to increases in violent crime, especially on the West Coast. “ATF listened to the calls for meaningful enforcement of President Biden’s muscular ghost gun rules to stem the tide of these deadly weapons into our communities,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown. The move, which the Justice Department described as a clarification of the regulation, is not without risk. Because the rule was created through executive action, rather than a statute, it has given companies confidence that they can keep selling individual gun parts. Administration officials said the new guidance would almost certainly be challenged in federal court on the grounds that it violates the Gun Control Act of 1968, which allows people to build firearms for their personal use without submitting to background checks or applying serial numbers. The guidance will only serve “to further confuse the industry as to when an unfinished, incomplete item is a ‘frame’ or ‘receiver’ and thus regulated,” said Larry Keane of the National Shooting Sports Foundation. Some liberal-leaning states have passed laws to regulate ghost guns after a series of mass shootings involving them. Some states and cities have sued ghost gun manufacturers over attacks carried out using such weapons. The gun lobby strongly opposed the new federal rule, and several conservative legal groups have already challenged it.