On Aug. 24, a new rule from the Biden administration went into effect intended to curb the sale of ghost guns. Under the regulation from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, gun dealers are required to serialize “ready to build” ghost gun kits and to perform background checks on perspective buyers as they would for other guns.
Before the rule went into effect, dealers were racing to offload their parts kits, as investigative reporter Alain Stephens reported for The Trace. Now that it’s in effect, dealers are skirting the regulation by selling the parts separately, instead of in one kit. Stephens spoke with “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal about the market for ghost guns. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Alain Stephens: Ghost gun is a media term, a street term for a privately manufactured firearm. It’s a homemade gun, and under congressional law, you know, U.S. citizens who are legally allowed to possess a firearm have long been allowed to make their own guns at home without having to go through background checks or serializations.
Kai Ryssdal: Explain serialization, because that’s relevant here, right?
Stephens: Yes, yes. So serialization is something that, when you buy a traditional firearm through a regularly licensed gun dealer, there’s a serial number attached to that. And what that does is, if that weapon ends up at a crime scene down on the line, that serial number and that paperwork allows the federal government and police officers to have an investigative lead, and they call that tracing. But these homemade guns, they don’t have serial numbers.
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Ryssdal: Right, and obviously therein lies the problem, right? That is the challenge for tracing these ghost guns, whoever came up with that phrase, right? That is the challenge for law enforcement.
Stephens: Correct, yes. It was something that for decades was really something for niche hobbyists. It was very difficult to make a firearm from scratch due to just the gunsmithing skills and material tools necessary.
Ryssdal: Right. So let’s talk about the gun manufacturing process now as it applies to these ghost guns. It is orders of magnitude easier now than it was decades ago.
Stephens: Absolutely. That’s exactly what happens. So you know, some very enterprising gun dealers had seized on this allowance in congressional law and said, “You know what, we can kind of bring this to the masses.” So what they did is they started offering these parts kits, right? And so now you can buy one of these parts kits, and, you know, manufacture a complete firearm within under an hour. And if you are a person looking to get a gun illegally outside the purview of the law, this has become a very, you know, great advantage to them.
Ryssdal: Important to note here that this is a rule and not a law.
Stephens: Correct. Yes. So the Biden administration decided they needed to do something about this. And anyone who follows the gun space knows that congressional law regarding gun policy has pretty much been at a stalemate, and so they went through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and used their rulemaking capability to try to create regulations on people selling these ghost guns parts kits. But it only applies to the parts kits. So these dealers, after the rule went into effect, they simply just break up the kits and sell each piece individually, and now they’re just back in business.
Ryssdal: It’s seems to me this is a story — and look, I don’t want to coin a phrase here, right — but this is a story of the administrative state. It is a government regulatory agency using its regulatory powers in its area of concern. But it’s uniquely an area where there are ways for the companies and people being regulated to get around it. Does that make sense?
Stephens: Yeah, absolutely. The firearms industry has been very powerful, and they’ve had very powerful lobbying capabilities. In fact, when the Biden administration actually announced that they were going to take on this ghost gun issue almost a year ago, they also in that same announcement had to say that they’re trying to put in another ATF director, because the agency had been nearly directorless for almost 20 years. And part of that was result of gun dealers and their consistent lobbying through Congress members to kind of put the ATF very much into a corner when it comes to their regulatory capabilities. So even when a lot of these rules and regulations are being made, they’re very much being made under the caution and concern of essentially getting pummeled by some very powerful industry lobbying groups.
Ryssdal: What do your sources — once you put the pen and paper away — what do sources at the ATF tell you about the current state of play?
Stephens: You know, I’m going to keep it real with you. These guys have seen this problem for a very long time. And you know, there’s a lot of disappointment. They don’t really talk about the politics, the law enforcement guys, but what they do see is this: That when it comes to this rule, the only thing they think it did was create a lot of fanfare that’s created fear-based sales of more of these parts kits. And, you know, they’re telling me that they’re assuming that they’re going to be picking up more ghost guns at crime scenes as this kind of problem is still being muddled in the White House.