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What Are Ghost Guns, and What Is Biden Trying to Do About Them?

Major cities across the U.S. are dealing with increases in gun violence in the wake of the pandemic, pushing some local leaders to petition the federal government for action. But stricter new gun laws aren’t on the horizon, given Republican opposition in the U.S. Senate, where they can block such bills. New rules announced by President Joe Biden are meant to crack down on so-called ghost guns, but they’re almost certain to be challenged in court.

1. What are ghost guns?

They’re unregistered guns typically assembled from a kit, or 3D-printed based on instructions purchased on the internet or at a gun show. Because they lack the serial numbers required to be stamped on complete weapons, it’s impossible to find out where they originated. Under current rules, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives does not consider them firearms, meaning they aren’t subject to the restrictions placed on weapons sales, including the requirement that buyers undergo a background check. But once they’re assembled -- a process that can take as little as 15 minutes, according to sellers -- ghost guns operate exactly like regular guns.

2. How big of a problem are they?

The Justice Department says more than 23,000 firearms without serial numbers were reported recovered by law enforcement from potential crime scenes from 2016 to 2020. An estimated 2,500 ghost guns have been linked to criminal activity from 2010 to April 2020, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy organization. (The group, which advocates for universal background checks and gun-safety measures, is backed by Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent company Bloomberg LP.) Law enforcement agencies have suggested that there has been an increase in the use of ghost guns to commit crimes, but because these weapons are untraceable, collecting data is a challenge. By all accounts, ghost guns represent only a fraction of the estimated 393 million guns owned in the U.S. or of the seven million guns that were manufactured legally in 2019. But advocates say stopping ghost gun sales is an issue of growing urgency. Of the online sellers of ghost guns operating in 2020, Everytown estimated that almost 70% emerged after 2014.

3. What is Biden’s plan?

He proposed new federal rules that would bring the purchasing process for these kits in line with the regulations for purchasing traditional guns by expanding the definition of a firearm to include unfinished parts, like the frame of a handgun or the receiver of a long gun, according to the Associated Press. That means sellers would need to run background checks and include serial numbers on the gun kits. The rules apply to parts made by any method, including 3D printers. They are scheduled to go into effect 120 days after Biden’s April 11 announcement. The new rules would also require gun sellers to keep records for as long as they are in business, meaning they will no longer be allowed to dispose of records after 20 years. 

4. What do opponents say? 

Gun Owners of America, a nonprofit lobbying organization, said the rules essentially allow the ATF to end the online sale of gun parts. The organization said it plans to challenge the rule change, which it argues violates the Second Amendment and other federal laws. “Just as we opposed the Trump administration’s arbitrary ban on bump stocks, GOA will also sue Biden’s ATF to halt the implementation of this rule,” Aidan Johnston, the group’s director of federal affairs, said in a statement.

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