WASHINGTON – Calling them “basic common sense,” President Joe Biden took steps Monday to rein in the use of untraceable firearms known as ghost guns that law enforcement officers said turn up frequently at crime scenes.
Biden announced federal regulations that will target privately made firearms that can be assembled from do-it-yourself kits purchased online or in a store. The weapons lack serial numbers, which makes it difficult to trace the owner.
“These guns are weapons of choice for many criminals,” Biden said in a Rose Garden ceremony attended by victims and families of gun violence. “We are going to do everything we can to deprive them of that choice and, when we find them, put them in jail for a long, long time.”
The rules, which have been in the works for nearly a year, will clarify that the unfinished parts sold in the gun kits, such as the frame of a handgun or the receiver of a long gun, will qualify as firearms under federal law.
Commercial manufacturers of the kits will have to be licensed and must add serial numbers on the kits’ frame or receiver. Commercial sellers of the kits will have to become licensed and will be required to run background checks on potential buyers before a sale, just like they must do with commercially made firearms.
In a related move, Biden announced that he is nominating Steve Dettelbach, a former U.S. attorney from Ohio, to serve as director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The federal agency, known as the ATF, is responsible for enforcing the nation’s gun laws.
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Biden withdrew his first nominee for the job, gun-control advocate David Chipman, in September after the nomination stalled for months because of opposition from Republicans and some Democrats in the Senate.
Biden’s decision to take aim at ghost guns comes amid growing concern about the rise of gun violence and increasing pressure from Democrats in Congress to crack down on gun deaths and violent crime.
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The ATF proposed a new rule last May that would change the federal definition of a firearm to include the parts used to make ghost guns. The rule has been making its way through the federal regulatory process for nearly a year. Monday’s announcement noted that the agency has issued the final rule.
In addition to the new regulations, Biden called on Congress to ban the sale and possession of ghost guns.
Biden’s actions are expected to face strong resistance from the gun lobby.
Even before the new regulations were announced, gun-rights group Gun Owners of America said Sunday it would immediately sue to halt the new rules, which it said violate the Second Amendment. Aidan Johnston, the group’s director of federal affairs, accused Biden of trying to create a national gun registry and end the online sale of gun parts without passage of a new law.
The group called on Congress to block the implementation of the rule by using the Congressional Review Act, which allows lawmakers to overturn rules issued by federal agencies.
Gun-control advocates praised the new regulations.
“Ghost guns look like a gun, they shoot like a gun, and they kill like a gun, but up until now they haven’t been regulated like a gun,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, which pushes for gun control and against gun violence.
Feinblatt applauded the administration “for doubling down on its commitment to gun safety by taking action to rein in ghost guns and nominating an ATF director who will end its culture of complicity with the gun industry.”
Law-enforcement officials across the country have expressed concern about the rise in use of ghost guns in crimes. Last year alone, some 20,000 ghost guns were recovered by law enforcement in criminal investigations, a ten-fold increase from 2016, the Justice Department said.
As the number of crimes involving ghost guns has jumped in several parts of the U.S., some states, like California, have enacted laws to require serial numbers to be stamped on firearms. Some municipalities also are firing back with lawsuits and other legal challenges that accuse manufacturers of violating laws and undermining law enforcement.
Mia Tretta, who was wounded more than two years ago in a school shooting at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, Calif., introduced Biden at Monday’s event. Tretta called the new rules “lifesaving” and noted that the weapon used to shoot her and kill two students was a ghost gun.
“Now, finally, we have a president who realizes that thoughts and prayers alone are not enough,” she said.
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The new regulations Biden announced Monday also include steps to put serial numbers on ghost guns already in circulation.
The Justice Department will require licensed dealers and gunsmiths taking any unserialized firearm into inventory to add a serial number to that weapon.
For example, if someone builds a firearm at home and then sells it to a pawnbroker or another licensed dealer, that dealer must add a serial number to the weapon before selling it to a customer. The requirement will apply regardless of how the firearm was made, whether it’s assembled from individual parts, kits, or by 3D-printers.
Licensed firearms dealers also will be required to keep records until they shut down their business. The records then must be transferred to the ATF, just as they are currently required to do. Previously, dealers were permitted to destroy most records after 20 years.
Biden called the new regulations “an important step” and noted that when a serial number is added to a gun, “all of a sudden it’s no longer a ghost.”
“That’s going to help save lives, reduce crime and get more criminals off the streets,” he said.
Follow Michael Collins on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS.
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