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The U.S. Just Changed the Definition of Firearms to Account for Untraceable Ghost Guns

Manufacturers of gun assembly kits will be required to include traceable serial numbers and run federal background checks before selling their products.

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 Confiscated “ghost guns” are displayed before a news conference with New York City Mayor Eric Adams and Attorney General Letitia James and others to announce a new lawsuit against “ghost gun” distributors on June 29, 2022 in New York City.
Confiscated “ghost guns” are displayed before a news conference with New York City Mayor Eric Adams and Attorney General Letitia James and others to announce a new lawsuit against “ghost gun” distributors on June 29, 2022 in New York City.
Photo: Spencer Platt (Getty Images)

New “Ghost Run” regulations set to take effect today could help close a half-century-old loophole that made guns developed using 3D printers or assembled with homemade parts essentially invisible to law enforcement.

Under the new rules, commercial manufacturers of gun assembly kits will be required to include traceable serial numbers and run federal background checks before selling their products. The change modernizes the definition of a firearm to properly account for Ghost Guns and increases the amount of time manufacturers are required to retain records. Together, the Biden Administration and the Justice Department believe these efforts could help quell an apparent surge of Ghost Guns littering city streets…if they can survive gun industry legal attacks.

Ghost Guns generally refer to firearms that are assembled with individual parts from kits or a 3D printer. These Ghost Guns, also referred to as “privately made firearms,” lack serial numbers making them difficult for law enforcement to track and trace if used during a crime. Though manufacturers sell full kits for firearm enthusiasts, the recent rise of 3D printing has allowed tinkerers to create their untraceable lower receivers, which until recently was what legally constituted the “firearm” component of a gun.

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The DOJ’s updated language, which it refers to as the “Frame or Receiver” Final Rule, tries to address this issue by explicitly stating kits capable of being converted into functioning firearms are subject to the same regulations as more traditional guns. Prior to this week’s update, realtors were relying on language written in 1968 and 1971 to determine what defined firearms.

They were due for an update.

“This rule will make it harder for criminals and other prohibited persons to obtain untraceable guns,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement. “It will help to ensure that law enforcement officers can retrieve the information they need to solve crimes. And it will help reduce the number of untraceable firearms flooding our communities.”

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These rules, while welcomed by some gun control advocates, will likely do little to address the overall issue of gun violence plaguing the country and may not do much to address wider problems surrounding Ghost Guns. Though Ghost Guns are on the rise, they still make up a fraction of the more than 400 million firearms currently spread out across the country. It’s also unclear what, if any effect these changes will have on gun owners who simply choose to buy kits or download firearm parts illegally.

Ghost guns aren’t new, but they’ve seen an apparent explosion in popularity in recent years. Last year, a report released by the Los Angeles Police Department revealed a whopping 400% increase in Ghost Guns recovered in 2017, with 863 recovered between January and June. That staggering increase led the agency to categorize the uptick as an “epidemic.” Across California, law enforcement officials speaking with The New York Times last year said ghost guns made up somewhere between 25-50% of all firearms collected at crime scenes.

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The issue isn’t limited to California either. Recently released Department of Justice data reportedly suggests ghost gun recoveries surged by 90% last year and an eye-grabbing 1,000% in the past five years. In total, Joe Biden’s White House estimates that around 20,000 suspected Ghost Guns were recovered and reported to ATF by law enforcement during criminal investigations in 2021, a supposed ten-fold increase from the amount reported five years prior. Though any and all data released by law enforcement agencies should be taken with a heaping grain of salt, the preponderance of evidence clearly shows Ghost Guns are more popular than ever.

Legal challenges await

Unsurprisingly, some conservative lawmakers and gun rights organizations are livid over the new rules. Earlier this year, 17 state attorneys general led by Arizona AG Mark Brnovich filed a lawsuit attempting to block the measure, claiming the ATF’s so-called “Final Rule” on firearm definitions would, “sow chaos within large segments of the firearms community.” A district judge in North Dakota recently rejected Republican lawmakers’ efforts to block the rules from taking effect.

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Other lawsuits, like this one filed by firearm receiver distributor Division 80, claim the resignation could ruin certain businesses and leave its workers jobless. Others, The Gun Owners of America, a major gun lobby, have criticized the new rules on federalist grounds, and say rules impacting firearms access should come through a congressional vote rather than a presidential pen.