Justice Dept. aims to crack down on ‘ghost guns’ with federal regulation

The Department of Justice issued a notice of a proposed federal regulation Friday seeking to broaden the definition of a firearm and its related parts in a Biden administration effort to crack down on “ghost guns,” homemade firearms without serial numbers that are often purchased without a background check. The department seeks to require the inclusion of serial numbers in select home gun-making kits.

Under current law, it’s legal to assemble firearms from a kit in a workshop or private residence. The kits can be purchased for anywhere from several hundred dollars to thousands of dollars online and do not require the same background check that would be commonplace at a gun retailer. Under the proposed rule, online gun kit retailers would be required to administer background checks before selling kits with parts necessary to build a gun at home.

For years, gun control advocates and law enforcement officials have criticized what they say is a loophole in federal gun laws, allowing individuals who would normally be prohibited from purchasing a gun to acquire one by making it themselves. “Ghost guns” have been used in at least two notable shooting sprees in California, including a 2017 incident that left 5 dead in Rancho Tehama Reserve.

In June, a group of 18 state attorneys led by Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland urging him to close what they called the “80 percent loophole,” asserting that it “allows criminals, domestic abusers, and other individuals who legally cannot possess firearms to evade common-sense gun laws.”

The letter stated that, while some states took action to close the loophole, federal policy is still needed to enact nationwide change — a call that Garland appears to have heeded.

“To be clear, such a change would not in any way restrict the rights of lawful gun owners to purchase 80% receivers and assemble firearms on their own,” the letter said. “It would simply require that these products have serial numbers and that purchasers undergo simple background checks—just like they currently do for other firearm purchases.”

The letter was signed by the attorneys general of Michigan, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Virginia.

“We are committed to taking commonsense steps to address the epidemic of gun violence that takes the lives of too many people in our communities,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement Friday. “Criminals and others barred from owning a gun should not be able to exploit a loophole to evade background checks and to escape detection by law enforcement.”

The Justice Department says over 23,000 unserialized firearms were recovered from crime scenes from 2016 to 2020, 325 of those being related to homicide.

The Department said that the rule would help address those firearms in several ways, including serial numbers placed on the lower receiver, sometimes referred to as an 80% receiver, that can be purchased online with no serial number and no license required. The DOJ also wants to require federally licensed gun dealers to add serial numbers to any 3D printed or unserialized firearms they take into inventory.

Converting unfinished receivers into completed firearms is a process that is fairly easy and can take only a few hours. A Computer Numerical Control, CNC, or drill press is used to cut holes into the receiver to create a cavity, which is then combined with other parts to assemble the fully-fledged and functional firearm.

“This proposed rule would help keep guns out of the wrong hands and make it easier for law enforcement to trace guns used to commit violent crimes, while protecting the rights of law-abiding Americans,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement. “Although this rulemaking will solve only one aspect of the problem, we have an obligation to do our part to keep our families and our neighborhoods safe from gun violence.”