United States President Joe Biden has unveiled a new Department of Justice rule that he hopes will crack down on so-called “ghost guns”, drawing condemnation from a gun rights group but support from gun control advocates.
The weapons, which can be bought as kits to be assembled at home and lack federal tracking serial numbers, have been increasingly recovered at crime scenes across the US in recent years, according to the White House.
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“Law enforcement is sounding the alarm,” Biden told reporters at the White House of the ghost guns, briefly holding one up for cameras to see in the Rose Garden.
“Our communities are paying the price,” he said, promising that the new regulations would save lives. Biden also announced the nomination of Steve Dettlebach, a former US attorney in the state of Ohio, to run the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
In 2021, law enforcement agencies reported 20,000 recovered suspected ghost guns to ATF. The figure represented a ten-fold increase from 2016.
“These are the criminal’s weapon of choice,” a Biden administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters in a preview of the announcement.
The new DoJ rule says that manufacturers of some types of “ghost gun” kits – known as “buy, build, shoot” kits – will be subject to the same restrictions as firearm manufacturers under the Gun Control Act.
That would require manufacturers of the kits to get federal licenses and include serial numbers on key components of the weapon.
The rule would also require federally licensed dealers and gunsmiths who receive guns without serial numbers to “serialise” the weapon with federal authorities before selling it to a customer.
It also seeks to close loopholes in order to ensure that all firearms are subject to federal registration, even those where key firing components are sold in multiple parts.
Meanwhile, the rule requires firearms dealers to retain key documents until they go out of business. They had previously been permitted to destroy most records after 20 years.
Gun Owners of America vowed that it would immediately fight the rule.
“Just as we opposed the Trump Administration’s arbitrary ban on bump stocks, GOA will also sue Biden’s ATF to halt the implementation of this rule,” Aidan Johnston, the group’s director of federal affairs said in a statement.
The group believes the rule violates the US Constitution and several federal laws.
But gun safety advocacy groups, including Everytown for Gun Safety, which pushed the federal government for years to take action on ghost guns, applauded Biden’s moves and insisted that both Dettlebach’s appointment and the finalised rule will help combat gun violence.
“Ghost guns look like a gun, they shoot like a gun, and they kill like a gun, but up until now they haven’t been regulated like a gun,” said John Feinblatt, Everytown’s president.
David Pucino, deputy chief counsel at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, told Al Jazeera that ghost guns have been “a really fruitful way for traffickers to source firearms”.
“And so gun traffickers who normally would have to go to a lot of trouble and a lot of risk in order to source firearms to put on the streets now have a really easy way to do it … I think that that’s been responsible for there being such an increase of them,” said Pucino.
He also welcomed Dettlebach’s nomination to lead the ATF as an important step towards ensuring that the agency can enforce US gun regulations. “This is just one example, with this ghost gun rule going through, that we really need ATF to be strong on the enforcement side because if they don’t, it’s really just a rule on paper,” Pucino said.
Biden had called on the DoJ to issue rules related to ghost guns in April 2021 following a spate of mass shootings, which have become common in the US in recent decades.
He has called on Congress to pass sweeping federal gun control measures but has faced an uphill battle on the politically fraught issue.