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The Biden administration is regulating 'ghost guns.' Here's what the rule does

A 9mm pistol build kit with a commercial slide and barrel with a polymer frame is displayed at the White House. Here's a look at what the Biden administration's new rule does.
Carolyn Kaster
A 9mm pistol build kit with a commercial slide and barrel with a polymer frame is displayed at the White House. Here's a look at what the Biden administration's new rule does.

The Department of Justice said Monday that it had submitted to the Federal Register a final rule designed to curb the proliferation of so-called "ghost guns" — untraceable firearms that don't have serial numbers.

In 2021, about 20,000 suspected ghost guns were recovered by law enforcement in criminal investigations and reported to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). The figure marked a tenfold increase from 2016, according to the White House.

With the latest announcement from the Biden administration, here's a look at what's behind the White House's latest steps designed to curb gun crimes.

What's a ghost gun?

Ghost guns are firearms that are privately assembled and untraceable. They can be assembled from "buy build shoot" kits or from other parts or they can be 3D-printed. Unlike other guns, these weapons don't have serial numbers. The Department of Justice's "Frame or Receiver" final rule focuses on these "buy build shoot kits."

Anyone can purchase these kits, said Alex McCourt, an assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health who studies firearm policy. You don't need a background check to buy one.

"Until they're put together, they're not considered guns," McCourt said. "And so anybody that is prohibited from purchasing a gun or possessing a gun can get one of these kits."

Those with a history of domestic violence or convictions for other violent offenses can purchase ghost guns. Even children can order and build them, McCourt said.

The White House says the weapons can be assembled from a kit in as little as 30 minutes. But it takes some tools and could take some time, McCourt said. It's not like building with Legos, he added.

What will the final rule change?

The rule won't ban gun kits themselves or strengthen penalties for crimes committed with ghost guns, but it will bring the regulation of ghost guns to be more in line with traditional guns.

"It recognizes that these guns are indistinguishable and should be regulated like traditional guns," McCourt told NPR. "Now, they will need to go through the same process."

Under the rule, the kits will need to be produced by licensed manufacturers. And anyone buying the guns will have to pass a background check.

The rule will also require serial numbers on the gun kit's frame or receiver, which is the primary piece of the firearm that all of the parts are attached to, McCourt said.

As for the ghost guns that are already in circulation, the rule will require that licensed dealers add serial numbers any ghost guns that are a part of their inventory. This applies to all ghost guns — whether produced in a kit, assembled from parts or 3D-printed.

In addition, the rule will require federally licensed gun retailers to hold onto records for the length of time that they're licensed, according to the Department of Justice. Throughout the past decade, the ATF has struggled to trace firearms because the records had already been destroyed.

"These records will continue to belong to, and be maintained by, federal firearms licensees while they are in business," the DOJ said in a release.

How often are these guns used? And where are we seeing them?

While data on ghost guns is limited, McCourt said, the weapons have been cropping up across the country.

Earlier this year, police found a ghost gun at a Maryland high school after a student allegedly shot another student. And in 2019, a 16-year-old used a ghost gun to shoot five students before shooting himself at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, Calif.

In Philadelphia, 571 ghost guns were recovered in 2021. And in Baltimore, police seized 345 ghost guns in 2021 — compared with 12 seized in 2018.

On the West Coast, San Francisco police seizedmore than 190 ghost guns in 2021, amounting to 20% of all guns seized by the department. And in Los Angeles, 24% of the 8,121 guns seized in 2021 were ghost guns.

Moving forward, McCourt said that policymakers should take a closer look at 3D-printed ghost guns, which were not the focus of the final rule.

There's a question of whether the latest efforts to fight the proliferation of ghost guns made with kits could lead to increased production of ghost guns made through 3D-printing, McCourt said.

"We've seen that technology moves very quickly and policy tends to move a little bit more slowly," he said. "As these new technologies pop up, policy needs to be able to respond much more quickly than it has."

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Rina Torchinsky