San Francisco display seized “ghost guns” in 2019.

San Francisco display seized “ghost guns” in 2019.
Photo: Haven Daley (AP)

Joe Biden’s administration made its first move on gun control on Thursday, issuing executive actions for the Department of Justice to develop rules regarding so-called “ghost guns” and attachments that turn high-powered pistols into rifles, as well as write model legislation to keep volatile individuals away from firearms.

Ghost guns, as they’ve become known, are firearms that buyers can assemble from kits containing individual gun components. Some companies have taken to selling packages containing every part of a firearm including an unfinished receiver, the federally regulated component of a gun, by mail order. Sometimes they don’t stamp the receivers with serial numbers or carry out background checks on buyers, operating under the theory that they aren’t subject to federal commercial firearm sale or distribution laws because the end user is technically the one who does the final work to assemble the gun. (This is questionable, as though the ATF has been tepid about regulating unfinished receivers sold by themselves, it raided a company named Polymer80 that packaged them with all the other parts of a gun.)

The end result is that criminals can quickly acquire kits that allow them to build untraceable firearms they might not have otherwise been able to obtain. When they’re used in crimes, it can be much harder for investigators to establish where the gun came from or determine who owned it.

The mishmash of gun laws across the 50 states means that in some, ghost gun kits are almost totally unregulated, while in others, certain parts such as unfinished receivers are subject to greater scrutiny. One of the actions signed by Biden on Thursday orders the DOJ to come up with “a proposed rule” to cut down on the “proliferation of these firearms,” though it leaves it open as to what that would actually entail. Per a White House fact sheet:

We are experiencing a growing problem: criminals are buying kits containing nearly all of the components and directions for finishing a firearm within as little as 30 minutes and using these firearms to commit crimes. When these firearms turn up at crime scenes, they often cannot be traced by law enforcement due to the lack of a serial number. The Justice Department will issue a proposed rule to help stop the proliferation of these firearms.

Another of the actions orders the DOJ to come up with a sample “red flag” law which allows police or family members to petition for an emotionally disturbed individual to be temporarily separated from any firearms in their possession. The intent is to prevent firearms from being used in domestic violence or suicides, as well as to stop mass shooters from having the means to carry out an attack.

Developing model legislation “will make it easier for states that want to adopt red flag laws to do so,” according to the White House, though it doesn’t actually obligate states to do so. Biden also called for Congress to pass a federal red flag law that would apply nationwide.

Finally, a third action in the order will have the DOJ develop rules around when devices marketed as stabilizing braces effectively qualify a pistol as a short-barreled rifle (SBR). Stabilizing braces are devices resembling rifle stocks that can be attached to pistols or “AR pistols” (guns built on an AR-15 action or receiver that sometimes fire rifle rounds like 5.56 NATO, and which are supposedly designed to be fired with one hand, but usually not comfortably).

As the Trace explains, using this type of brace allows gun owners to convert an AR pistol into a device almost identical to an SBR, which is one of the most tightly regulated classes of firearms across the U.S. under the 1934 National Firearms Act because they are more compact and concealable than other full-length rifles. A mass shooter in Boulder, Colo. who killed 10 people on March 22, including a police officer, used such a device.

According to CNN, while Biden’s actions were hailed by West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin—a conservative Democrat who has postured himself as a sort of bipartisan power broker in a split Senate—Senator Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said they were “not a substitute for meaningful legislation to address the gun violence epidemic.” In March, the House passed legislation that would expand background checks for all sales or transfers of firearms in the country, as well as close a loophole that allows some sales to go through and the buyer to pick up their gun before a background check is completed. Schumer is currently trying to usher the legislation through the Senate, but Democrats barely hold the chamber and getting 60 votes for it is an uphill struggle.

Congressional Republicans and the gun lobby have gone the other direction, opposing virtually all new federal gun control efforts and moving to slash what remains of gun laws in red states.

Biden reiterated his support of the House bills on Thursday, according to CNBC.

“There’s much more that Congress can do to help that effort, and they can do it right,” Biden told reporters. “They’ve offered plenty of thoughts and prayers, members of Congress. But they’ve passed not a single new federal law to reduce gun violence. Enough prayers; time for some action.”

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