Explainer: what are ghost guns? Why is Biden taking action?

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration is unveiling a full rule that aims to curb the proliferation of ghost guns, firearms without serial numbers, which are turning up in increasing numbers at crime sites across the country.

The White House and the Justice Department argue that regulating firearms parts and requiring dealers to stamp serial numbers on ghost guns would reduce violent crime and help investigators solve crimes. However, gun groups argue that the government is overreaching and that its rule violates federal law.

Here’s a Look at the Ghost Gun and the On-going Debate in America

What are ghost guns?

They are privately manufactured firearms without serial numbers.

Generally, firearms manufactured by licensed companies are required to have a serial number—usually displayed on the frame of the gun—that allows officials to trace the gun to the manufacturer, firearms dealer, and original buyer.

Ghost guns, however, are made of parts and then assembled together. The critical component in building an unreliable gun is what is known as the lower receiver. Some are sold in do-it-yourself kits and receivers are usually made of metal or polymer.

An unfinished receiver—sometimes referred to as an “80-cent receiver”—can be purchased legally online with no serial number or other markings, no license required. Under current regulations, the federal government does not consider unfinished lower receivers to be firearms.

What does the rule do?

This changes the definition of a firearm and will require federal firearms dealers to add serial numbers to ghost guns coming their way.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has stated for years that an incompletely short receiver does not meet the legal definition of a firearm. And there is nothing illegal in making your own firearm.

It is legal to make your own firearm if it is for your personal use and you do not intend to sell it. But if you open a business selling guns, you need a federal firearms license.

Under the new rule, the definition of a firearm would be changed to include unfinished parts, such as the frame of a handgun or the receiver of a long gun. The rule would also require those parts to be licensed and include a serial number. Dealers will also be required to conduct background checks prior to sale – just as they do with other commercially manufactured firearms.

The requirement applies regardless of how the firearm was made, meaning it includes individual parts, kits, or ghost guns made by 3D-printers.

It would also compel federally licensed dealers and gunsmiths who carry firearms without a serial number to add a serial number. This means, for example, if someone sells a ghost gun to a pawnbroker — or other licensed dealer — the dealer must put a serial number on it before selling the gun to anyone else.

How prevalent are ghost guns?

Ghost guns are not new. But they are becoming a growing problem for law enforcement agencies across America.

Federal officials are sounding the alarm about a growing black market for domestic, military-style semi-automatic rifles and handguns. And guns without serial numbers are turning up more frequently at crime scenes. They are also increasingly encountered when federal agents purchase guns from gang members and other criminals in undercover operations.

Ghost guns really popped into the public consciousness in 2013 when a gunman, John Jawahar, opened fire on the campus of Santa Monica College in California. Six people, including Jawahar’s father and brother, died. The AR-15 was assembled by the suspect after the gun dealer failed a background check.

A gunman who killed his wife and four others in northern California in 2017 was banned from possessing firearms, but built himself up to defy a court order before his getaway. And in 2019, a teenager used a household handgun to fatally shoot two classmates and injure three others at a school in suburban Los Angeles.

Since then sales of ghost guns have exploded. It is difficult to say how many people are roaming the streets, as in many cases police departments do not approach the government about guns because they cannot be traced.

Justice Department figures show that about 24,000 ghost guns were recovered by law enforcement at crime sites and reported to the government from 2016 to 2020. The New York Police Department said officers found 131 firearms without serial numbers since January.

what happens next?

The rule is usually enforced after 60 to 90 days of completion. But it is likely that the rule will be met with heavy resistance from gun groups and litigation in the coming weeks. Even reaching the point of enforcing a rule has taken more than a year. Biden announced plans to introduce stricter rules on ghost guns in April 2021.

Gun Owners of America vowed that it would fight the rule immediately and that it would sue the ATF “to prevent its implementation”.

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