Editorial: We need to tighten up regulations on deadly ‘ghost guns’

"Ghost guns" on display on boxes on a table.
“Ghost guns” on display in 2019 at the headquarters of the San Francisco Police Department in San Francisco.
(Haven Daley / Associated Press)

For several years now, some gun makers have been exploiting a loophole in federal regulations to evade a range of gun control measures by selling firearms in pieces to be assembled later by consumers, including people barred from owning a gun. It’s a preposterous situation, and the Biden administration should either address it through stronger regulations under existing congressional authority, or work with Congress on a legislative fix.

The issue centers on so-called ghost guns, which consist of untraceable parts that can be ordered online and then, with a little finishing work, assembled into a working firearm. The gun parts fall outside federal regulation because the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives held that while the core section of a gun — called a receiver or a frame — meets the legal definition of a firearm, an incomplete receiver or frame does not.

In what used to be the purview of gun hobbyists, manufacturers have surfaced that produce receivers and frames that are 80% complete, then sell them to people who finish the production by drilling holes and making other alterations that result in a completed part.

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That piece is then the central part of a homemade gun that does not carry a stamped serial number or other traceable identifiers, and is often passed on or sold to people who otherwise would have to clear a background check. It’s no surprise that such guns have found their way into the hands of people barred from buying firearms, including those with violent criminal records or mental illnesses or both. Law enforcement officials say ghost guns account for about a third of all firearms they confiscate in the Los Angeles area. In 2019, police officials nationwide confiscated about 10,000 ghost guns.

Last week Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer announced a lawsuit against a leading ghost gun vendor, Polymer80, based near Carson City, Nev., which is also the subject of a federal investigation. In addition to selling the unfinished receivers, Polymer80 sold “Buy, Build, Shoot” kits that included all the components necessary to craft the finished weapon, including correctly sized drill bits. The ATF determined that the kits as a package constitute a firearm and raided Polymer80’s headquarters late last year. No charges have been filed, but a federal affidavit alleges that the firm sold the kits without conducting background checks, including to buyers who would not have been able to pass one.

We hope Feuer is successful in his suit, which seeks an injunction against the firm. But the problem is much broader than one company and one local jurisdiction.

Although federal law says that receivers and frames that are “designed to or may readily be converted” into working guns must be regulated, the ATF has said in a series of advisory letters in recent years that the so-called 80% receivers by themselves do not clear that threshold for readiness. Gun control advocates, including Everytown for Gun Safety (which supports Feuer’s lawsuit), argue rightly that experience shows the parts can be, and readily are, finished into working firearms.

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The advocates have urged the ATF to reverse its position and treat unfinished receivers and frames the same as they do finished guns, which would require them to be stamped with a traceable serial number and, in most circumstances, require buyers to pass a background check. Several states and cities have joined the fight in separate civil suits accusing the ATF of violating federal law.


But it shouldn’t take lawsuits to force the government to embrace common sense and craft regulations that reflect Congress’ intent. Selling gun parts as a do-it-yourself kit is so close to selling the gun itself, the government should regulate the kits as firearms, including requiring serial numbers and background checks for customers.

Less likely to happen in these fractious political times is Congress addressing the issue as part of a package of reforms that would ban assault-style weapons, require universal background checks for every transfer of a firearm, close the “Charleston loophole” that allows a firearm sale to proceed if the FBI doesn’t finish a background check within three days, and take other common sense steps toward making society safer.

But it shouldn’t be that hard for the Biden administration’s ATF to review its regulatory position on receivers and frames, and close the ghost gun loophole.