Militia groups are using ghost guns to skirt federal law. Here’s how President Biden plans to stop them.
As the rise of domestic terrorism draws national attention, the shady gun transactions that arm domestic terrorists often occur without a trace.
During his Rose Garden speech last month, President Biden announced that his administration would be taking steps to regulate ghost guns—dangerous, untraceable firearms that are increasingly being used by far-right militias. When ghost guns are sold as kits or as unfinished parts, no background check is required.
May 21, 2020
On May 10, the Department of Justice released a proposed rule that would close the loophole that allows unfinished frames (handguns) and receivers (long guns) to be sold unserialized and without background checks. Online retailers have devised creative ways to undermine federal serialization and background check laws by marketing “unfinished” frames or receivers that can be turned into fully functioning frames or receivers with minimal tools or effort. The rule would define these parts as “firearms” and require serial numbers and background checks.
In crimes in major cities, including Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Washington DC, ghost guns present several major hurdles for law enforcement, which the DOJ’s proposed rule would address.
These unfinished frames or receivers are not required to carry serial numbers and can be sold legally to buyers who would normally fail a background check, such as people convicted of felonies. Due to the lack of affiliated serial numbers and unregulated purchasing process, law enforcement is often unable to trace purchases back to an individual.
One chilling example is the stash of ghost guns FBI agents found during an investigation into the group of Michigan militia men accused of plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The handguns were manufactured with parts purchased from a “gray market” dealer.
Daniel W. Webster, Jon S. Vernick, and Maria T. Bulzacchelli, “Effects of State–level Firearm Seller Accountability Policies on Firearm Trafficking,” Journal of Urban Health 86, no. 4 (2009): 525–537; Daniel W. Webster, Jon S. Vernick, Emma E. McGinty, and Ted Alcorn, “Preventing the Diversion of Guns to Criminals Through Effective Firearm Sales Laws,” in Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 109–121.
This is just one of many recent instances where dangerous extremists have acquired untraceable firearms. In addition to the increase in ghost gun usage by militia organizations, the DOJ estimates that from 2016 to 2020, more than 23,000 weapons without serial numbers were seized by law enforcement in connection with 325 homicides or attempted homicides .
Ghost guns also fuel firearms trafficking by allowing criminals to purchase unfinished frames to sell in large quantities. When law enforcement uncovers trafficking rings, they often find ghost guns among their wares—as was the case for recently busted rings in Los Angeles and New Jersey.
By regulating ghost guns, the Biden administration is taking a critical step towards disarming hate and preventing violent crime. The ability to manufacture untraceable and undetectable firearms undermines state and federal gun laws put in place to protect lives. It’s past time to address the threat ghost guns pose to public safety.
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