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Attorney General Becerra and Giffords Law Center Lead Lawsuit Demanding the Trump Administration Address the Threat of Unregulated Ghost Guns

SACRAMENTO – California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence led a coalition today in filing a lawsuit against the Trump administration demanding the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) correct its interpretation of what qualifies as a firearm. The coalition includes Bryan Muehlberger and Frank Blackwell, the fathers of Gracie Anne Muehlberger and Dominic Blackwell, respectively, who were tragically murdered with a ghost gun in the November 2019 Saugus High School Shooting in Santa Clarita, California. The law firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher represents Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Bryan Muehlberger, and Frank Blackwell in this lawsuit.

ATF maintains that the unfinished pistol frames and rifle receivers used to make untraceable ghost guns are not subject to the same regulations as other firearms. The lawsuit asks the US District Court for the Northern District of California to vacate these determinations and direct ATF to classify so-called “80 percent” frames and receivers as firearms subject to federal firearms statutes and regulations.

“If you can assemble Ikea furniture, you can definitely build a ghost gun,” said Hannah Shearer, Giffords Law Center Litigation Director. “And you’ll probably be able to do it faster: there are kits and tools that let you assemble a ghost gun in under 15 minutes. Yet for no reason at all, the parts used to build ghost guns aren’t treated as firearms under federal law. The effects of ATF’s misclassification of ghost guns are real and they are devastating. We demand accountability for the industry actors who are enabling gun violence to line their pockets. And we demand justice for Gracie Anne Muehlberger, Dominic Blackwell, and others tragically killed by ghost guns. We are grateful and proud to partner with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in representing the victims’ fathers in pursuing justice in this case.”

“It is unfathomable that the federal government permits dangerous individuals, including convicted felons and domestic abusers, to buy do-it-yourself gun kits without any regulation,” said Avi Weitzman, litigation partner at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher. “These kits are used to build untraceable firearms, including military-grade rifles, and are quickly becoming the weapon-of-choice for organized criminal gangs and others intent on doing harm. The government’s determination that these unassembled ghost guns are not ‘firearms’ not only lacks common sense and logic—it defies the law.” 

“Ghost guns are untraceable weapons that have been used in mass shootings throughout the country and right here in California—from Santa Monica in 2013, to Tehama County in 2017, and at Saugus High School just last year,” said Attorney General Becerra. “We can’t afford to wait for another tragedy to happen before we take action. It’s time for ATF to prioritize the safety of our communities by calling these products what they are: firearms, and regulating them accordingly.”

Hardware Ammunition 

Ghost Guns

Ghost guns—dangerous, homemade untraceable firearms—are increasingly being used to circumvent both federal and state gun laws and kill innocent people. 

Ghost gun kits, which commonly contain unfinished frames and receivers, can be sold by unlicensed sellers and later made into untraceable firearms at home. They contain the components of a nearly complete firearm that can be manufactured and then assembled in minutes into a fully functional weapon. Buyers of these kits do not have to undergo a background check, and the resulting firearm is ultimately untraceable because in most states they are not required to have a serial number. California law mandates that anyone who possesses, manufactures, or assembles lawful firearms in the state apply to the California Department of Justice for a unique serial number for each of their self-made firearms.

According to ATF, these unfinished frames and receivers, also referred to by the misnomer “80 percent receivers and frames” are not guns, and therefore not subject to regulation because they have not reached the stage in the manufacturing process that would qualify them as firearms. ATF currently allows sales of these unfinished frames and receivers to go unchecked despite having the authority under the Gun Control Act to regulate them.

In today’s lawsuit, the coalition argues that ATF violated the Administrative Procedure Act in relation to its policies on ghost guns for the following reasons:

  • ATF’s determinations are not in accordance with law because they disregard the Gun Control Act, which refers to a firearm as any weapon designed or easily converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive, including the frame or receiver of any such weapon; and
  • ATF’s position change on ghost guns was arbitrary and capricious. ATF previously considered unfinished frames and receivers that are identical to the 80 percent receivers and frames on the market today as equivalent to finished frames and receivers, and therefore subject to regulation by the Gun Control Act.

Attorney General Becerra is committed to protecting the public and upholding California’s commonsense gun safety laws. Earlier this year, Attorney General Becerra joined a multistate lawsuit to block the Trump administration’s irresponsible efforts to loosen regulations governing blueprints for 3D-printed ghost guns. Last month, the Attorney General continued his defense of California’s ban on large-capacity magazines by filing for an en banc review of the Duncan v. Becerra ruling

Attorney General Becerra also filed a petition in August in the San Francisco Superior Court requesting that the court order San Diego-based Glockstore, a business that sells factory-made serialized Glock handguns, aftermarket parts, and ghost gun kits, to comply with an outstanding subpoena and investigative interrogatories previously issued by the attorney general. In addition, Attorney General Becerra sponsored legislation last year in California to strengthen firearm safety laws in the state and close firearms licensing loopholes. A video highlighting the California Department of Justice’s Armed Prohibited Persons System and its work to protect public safety by keeping firearms out of the hands of individuals who are prohibited by law from possessing them is available here.

A copy of the lawsuit can be found here.

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