By almost any measure, the US remains in the grip of a gun-violence epidemic. Since the beginning of 2022, more than 30,000 Americans have died from firearms and another 27,000 have been wounded. There have been numerous mass shootings, including the May 24 massacre in Uvalde, Texas, in which 19 children and two educators were killed. Among developed economies, the US suffers more gun-related deaths per capita than the next eight countries combined.
Despite such grim figures, President Joe Biden’s administration is making quiet, consequential progress on gun safety. In June, Biden signed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the first significant gun-reform legislation in a generation, which toughens penalties for gun trafficking, expands background checks for gun buyers under 21, and incentivizes states to adopt “red-flag” laws to keep guns out of potentially dangerous hands. Building on that breakthrough, the administration is now cracking down on another growing threat: “ghost guns.”
Although they still constitute a small percentage of firearms used in crimes, ghost guns — weapons assembled at home — have become far more common in recent years. From January 2016 through December 2021, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives received more than 45,000 reports of suspected ghost guns recovered by law enforcement nationwide — including nearly 700 linked to homicides or attempted homicides. A lack of serial numbers makes such guns essentially untraceable, hampering the ability of cops to solve crimes.
Last month, the ATF implemented rules that will regulate such guns for the first time. Self-assembled firearms will now be “subject to the same regulations as traditional firearms,” as the Justice Department put it. That means manufacturers of ghost gun kits will be required to include serial numbers on key structural components. Sellers will also have to obtain federal licenses and perform background checks on purchasers. Any licensed retailer gaining possession of an unserialized, self-assembled gun will be required to obtain a serial number before reselling it.
If rigorously enforced, such changes could reduce the unchecked proliferation of ghost guns and save lives. Enhancing the traceability of self-assembled weapons will aid police investigations and help authorities break up trafficking rings. The ATF also has the power to shut down manufacturers and retailers that ignore the new regulations, which should make them think twice before sending untraceable guns back onto the streets.
While the new rules will go some way toward making communities safer, more work needs to be done. In addition to providing assistance to states in enforcing their own ghost-gun restrictions, the ATF should use its enhanced regulatory power under the new gun legislation to prevent online retailers from operating without registering with the federal government and obtaining a license. This would require them to run background checks and thus close a loophole that currently allows high-risk individuals to buy guns from unlicensed dealers.
More aggressive and consistent use of regulations is just one part of the multipronged strategy that gun-safety advocates should pursue, in addition to lawsuits against manufacturers and action at the state level. Biden should press lawmakers to hold votes on additional legislation to raise the minimum age for purchasing assault weapons from 18 to 21 and bring greater oversight to private transactions and sales at gun shows.
Though such measures aren’t likely to get through this Congress, Biden should continue to make the case for them to a broadly supportive public. Working with members of both parties, he has made steady, incremental headway toward common-sense reforms. Sustaining that momentum is critical to sparing the country further bloodshed.
More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion
• America’s Gun Laws Are as Old as Its Gun Politics: Francis Wilkinson
• The Gun Debate Needs to Break Old Patterns: Ramesh Ponnuru
• How to Start Solving America’s Gun Culture Problem: Sarah Green Carmichael and Francis Wilkinson
The Editors are members of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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