The Justice Department said Monday it had submitted a final rule to the Federal Register aimed at curbing the proliferation of so-called “ghost guns” – untraceable firearms that don’t have a serial number.
In 2021, about 20,000 the alleged phantom weapons were recovered by law enforcement as part of criminal investigations and reported to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). The figure marked a multiply from 2016, according to the White House.
With the latest announcement from the Biden administration, here’s a look at what’s behind the White House’s latest moves to tackle gun crime.
What is a ghost gun?
Ghost Guns are privately assembled, untraceable firearms. They can be assembled from “buy build shoot” kits or from other parts or they can be 3D printed. Unlike other firearms, these guns do not have a serial number. The Ministry of Justice Final rule “Frame or Receiver” focuses on these “Buy Construction Turning Kits”.
Anyone can buy these kits, said Alex McCourt, assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, who studies gun policy. You don’t need a background check to buy one.
“Until they’re assembled, they’re not considered firearms,” McCourt said. “And so anyone who is prohibited from buying a gun or owning a gun can get one of these kits.”
Those with a history of domestic violence or who have been convicted of other violent offenses can purchase Ghost Guns. Even kids can order and build them, McCourt said.
The White House says the weapons can be assembled from a kit in as little as 30 minutes. But it takes tools and could take some time, McCourt said. It’s not like building with Legos, he added.
What will the final rule change?
The rule will not ban the weapon kits themselves or increase penalties for crimes committed with ghost weapons, but it will bring ghost gun regulations in line with traditional weapons.
“He recognizes that these firearms are indistinguishable and should be regulated like traditional firearms,” McCourt told NPR. “Now they will have to go through the same process.”
According to the rule, the kits will have to be produced by licensed manufacturers. And whoever buys the guns will have to pass a background check.
The rule will also require serial numbers on the frame or receiver of the gun kit, which is the main part of the firearm to which all parts attach, McCourt said.
For ghost guns that are already in circulation, the rule will require authorized dealers to add serial numbers to all ghost guns that are in their inventory. This applies to all ghost guns, whether produced as a kit, assembled from parts, or 3D printed.
In addition, the rule will require federally licensed firearms retailers to retain records for the duration of their license, according to the Ministry of Justice. For the past decade, the ATF has had difficulty tracking down firearms because the records had already been destroyed.
“These records will continue to be owned and retained by federal firearms license holders while they are in operation,” the DOJ said in a statement.
How often are these weapons used? And where do we see them?
Although data on phantom guns is limited, McCourt said, the guns have been popping up across the country.
Earlier this year, police found a ghost gun in a maryland high school after a student allegedly shot another student. And in 2019, a 16-year-old used a ghost gun shoot five students before shooting themselves at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, California.
Going forward, McCourt said policymakers should take a closer look at 3D-printed ghost guns, which were not the focus of the final rule.
The question arises whether the latest efforts to curb the proliferation of kit-made ghost guns could lead to increased production of 3D-printed ghost guns, McCourt said.
“We’ve seen that technology moves very quickly and politics tends to move a bit slower,” he said. “As these new technologies emerge, politics must be able to respond much more quickly than it has been able to.”