What are ghost guns?: Biden executive action targets 'dangerous' and 'untraceable' firearms

As President Joe Biden is set to announce Thursday a host of executive actions aimed at slowing gun violence in the wake of several recent mass shootings in the U.S., renewed focus is on so-called "ghost guns."

Among the actions Biden will announce is directing the Department of Justice to propose a rule within 30 days to stop the proliferation of "ghost guns," a sort of untraceable weapon often made from a kit that currently does not require a background check.

A senior administration official who spoke with USA TODAY on the condition of anonymity confirmed "ghost guns" would be targeted but declined to say whether that meant the Justice Department would classify them as firearms.

Gun-control advocates have long pointed to "ghost guns" as problematic and a way for someone to obtain a firearm without having to go through the checks they would otherwise face.

"Ghost gun companies have been exploiting the way that the federal government defines 'firearms' to argue that the products they’re selling aren’t guns and avoid complying with regulations like background checks and tracing requirements," said David Pucino, a senior attorney at the gun violence prevention group Giffords.

"It should be no surprise we are seeing more and more of these guns used in crimes. The President directing the Justice Department to address this problem should go a long way in stopping the proliferation of these unregulated, deadly guns."

Read more on Biden's gun violence actions: Biden to unveil 6 executive actions to curb gun violence, nominate a permanent ATF director

Here's what to know about "ghost guns":

What are 'ghost guns'?

"Ghost guns" are guns without serial numbers that are largely untraceable and do not require the typical background checks for purchase.

Also called "kit guns" or "80% guns," they are often purchased in a kit that allows the buyer to assemble the gun at home.

More on 'ghost guns': Untraceable, DIY firearm used in California high school shooting

"You have untraceable, unserialized firearms that exist completely outside of the regulatory scheme of federal and state law," Nick Suplina, managing director for law and policy at gun violence group Everytown, told USA TODAY. "People who are prohibited from owning firearms under federal or state law have ready access to make their own untraceable firearms, and that's very dangerous."

Giffords called "ghost guns" "dangerous" and said they can also be made from mostly plastic parts and 3D printers.

Usually, gunmakers or importers affix a serial number and markings to traditionally manufactured firearms that identify the manufacturer or importer, make, model and caliber, the center said.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives can then trace these guns to their first retail purchaser when investigating a crime. 

Those who make "ghost guns" and parts, however, can say they are not selling an actual firearm and are not required to use a serial number under federal law, which makes the chain of custody nearly impossible to track, Giffords said.

Pucino said the lack of a required background check got "ghost guns" can also make it easier for people who are otherwise prohibited from possessing a firearm to obtain one.

Have 'ghost guns' been used in crimes before?

According to Giffords, "ghost guns" are increasingly part of illegal gun trafficking rings.

Brady, another gun violence advocacy group, says sales and the use of "ghost guns" have increased in recent years. The group cited a report from KABC-TV in which Carlos A. Canino, the Special Agent in charge of the ATF Los Angeles Field Division, said in 2020 that "41%, so almost half our cases we're coming across are these 'ghost guns.'"

"Ghost guns" have also been used in at least three mass shootings in recent years: A 2013 shooting in Santa Monica, California, that left five people dead, a 2017 shooting in Tehama County, California, that left four people dead and a 2019 shooting in Santa Clarita, California, that left two students at Saugus High School dead.

How are 'ghost guns' regulated?

The ATF determines whether a product is a firearm that requires a background check and serial number or if it is an unfinished kit and requires no check or serial number.

Suplina said the federal government considers frames or receivers – which house other parts, including the firing mechanism – the part of the gun that makes it a firearm and requires a serial number and background check to purchase. If a receiver is considered unfinished under federal purview, it is not regulated like a firearm, he said.

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The Undetectable Firearms Act requires, however, that guns are detectable by metal detectors "after removal of grips, stocks and magazines" and that X-rays can detect all major components, including "the barrel, the slide or cylinder, or the frame or receiver."

However, according to Giffords, a person could make a gun with largely plastic parts and some metal parts that are easily removable before entering a security area.

Eight states and the District of Columbia have enacted some sort of law addressing "ghost guns," Giffords reports.

What will the Biden executive orders on guns do?

Biden's order on "ghost guns" will require the Justice Department within 30 days to "issue a proposed rule to help stop the proliferation of 'ghost guns,'" the White House says.

Pucino praised the action as being able to "cut off the supply of untraceable firearms at its source."

The five other actions Biden plans to take, according to the White House, include:

  • Requiring the Justice Department to propose a new rule that would subject pistols with stabilizing braces to the requirements of the National Firearms Act.
  • Publishing a model of "red flag" law for states, which allow courts to temporarily bar people deemed to be a risk to themselves or others from having a firearm.
  • Directing five federal agencies to make changes to the 26 different programs to direct vital support to community violence intervention programs.
  • Requiring the Justice Department to issue an annual report on firearms trafficking.
  • Nominating David Chipman at the head of the ATF.

Contributing: Courtney Subramanian

Follow USA TODAY's Ryan Miller on Twitter @RyanW_Miller

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What are ghost guns?: Biden executive action targets 'dangerous' and 'untraceable' firearms

© 2021 USA TODAY. All Rights Reserved.


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