What is a ghost gun, and why is the administration concerned?

This Nov. 27, 2019, file photo shows "ghost guns" on display at the headquarters of the San Francisco Police Department in San Francisco
Haven Daley/Associated Press

President Biden on Monday announced a ban on unlicensed firearm kits used to manufacture weapons known as ghost guns.

The rule marks the latest action by the president and his administration to crack down on the proliferation of untraceable firearms.

“These guns are weapons of choice for many criminals,” Biden said during remarks from the Rose Garden on Monday, when he announced the rule. “We’re going to do everything we can to deprive them of that choice and when we find them, put them in jail for a long, long time.”

The rule includes a ban on “buy build shoot” kits that people can purchase in-person at a store or on the web without a background check.

But what exactly are ghost guns? Here’s what you need to know. 

What is a ghost gun?

A ghost gun is typically sold in a kit and constructed at home without serial numbers or background checks. 

Serial numbers would normally allow the guns to be traced back to the manufacturer, the dealer and whoever originally purchased the gun.

But unfinished receivers can be legally purchased online without any serial numbers or license, because the government did not previously define an unfinished receiver as a firearm, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) maintained that it was legal to build your own firearm. 

However, the Biden administration’s new policy changes this definition, redefining what a firearm is in order to require that these weapons are serialized and traceable. 

What does Monday’s rule change mean, in practice?  

The Justice Department said that the new policy “will clarify that parts kits that are readily convertible to firearms are subject to the same regulations as traditional firearms.”

The policy specifically defines what a firearm is, and unfinished parts of a gun must now be licensed with serial numbers. Purchasers must also undergo a background check to buy those items. 

These changes effectively mean that federal firearms dealers must put serial numbers on ghost guns. If dealers receive parts without serial numbers, they must add them before selling the gun to someone else. The new rules apply regardless of how the guns are made including strategies like constructing them from parts, kits and 3D printers.  

“If you buy a couch you have to assemble, it’s still a couch. If you order a package like this one over here that includes the parts you need, the directions of assembling a functioning firearm, you bought a gun,” Biden said Monday.

The National Rifle Association said that the move was “yet another hollow plan that will not stop this violence,” and other critics have argued that the policy is extreme, a point Biden countered. 

“Is it extreme to protect police officers? Extreme to protect our children? Extreme to keep guns out of the hands of people who couldn’t even pass a background check? The idea that someone on a terrorist list could purchase one of these guns,” the president said.

“It isn’t extreme, it’s just basic, common sense,” he added.

Why are ghost guns raising concerns?

Last year, the ATF received about 20,000 reports of suspected ghost guns recovered by law enforcement in criminal investigations, up from just over 1,750 guns recovered in 2016. 

Between 2016 and 2021, ATF received 45,240 reports of suspected privately made firearms that had been recovered by officials. Of those, 692 were part of homicide or attempted homicide investigations, the Justice Department said.

Earlier this year, Attorney General Merrick Garland directed U.S. attorneys to prioritize federal prosecutions of those who illegally sell or transfer firearms used in violent crimes. 

That decision came amid an uptick in overall violence. 

Throughout the pandemic, violent crime rates have spiked across the country

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the murder rate in the U.S. rose by 30 percent between 2019 and 2020, marking the largest single-year increase in more than a century and possibly the largest ever. 

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