Biden administration, DOJ expected to announce new ‘ghost gun’ rules

'Ghost guns' on display at the headquarters of the San Francisco Police Department.
The Biden administration is expected to come out with its long-awaited rule on “ghost guns” within days.
(Haven Daley / Associated Press)

President Biden is nominating an Obama-era U.S. attorney to run the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as his administration unveils its formal rule to rein in “ghost guns,” the privately made firearms without serial numbers that are increasingly cropping up at crime scenes, six people familiar with the matter told the Associated Press.

Biden is expected to nominate Steve Dettlebach, who served as a U.S. attorney in Ohio from 2009 to 2016, on Monday at the White House, the sources said. They were not authorized to discuss the nomination publicly and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.

The administration will also release the finalized version of its ghost gun rule, which comes as the White House and the Justice Department have been under pressure to crack down on gun deaths and violent crime.


Dettlebach’s confirmation is likely to be an uphill battle for the Biden administration. Biden had to withdraw the nomination of his first ATF pick, gun-control advocate David Chipman, after it stalled for months because of opposition from Republicans and some Democrats in the Senate.

Both Republican and Democratic administrations have failed to get nominees for the ATF position through the politically fraught process since the director’s position was made confirmable in 2006. Since then, only one nominee, former U.S. Atty. B. Todd Jones, has been confirmed. Jones, who made it through the Senate in 2013 after a six-month struggle, was acting director when President Obama nominated him in January 2013.

The Biden administration’s plan was first reported by Politico.

For nearly a year, the ghost gun rule has been making its way through the federal regulation process. Gun safety groups and Democrats in Congress have been pushing for months for the Justice Department to finish the rule. It will probably be met with heavy resistance from gun groups and will likely draw litigation in the coming weeks.

Police departments across California are reporting an increase in “ghost guns.” Here’s everything you need to know about them.

Nov. 15, 2021

On Sunday, Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York implored the administration to move faster.

“It’s high time for a ghost gun exorcism before the proliferation peaks and before more people get hurt — or worse,” Schumer, the Senate majority leader, said in a statement. “My message is a simple one: No more waiting on these proposed federal rules.” Ghost guns, he said, are “too easy to build, too hard to trace and too dangerous to ignore.”

Justice Department statistics show that nearly 24,000 ghost guns were recovered by law enforcement at crime scenes and reported to the government from 2016 to 2020. It is hard to say how many are circulating on the streets, in part because police departments in many cases don’t contact the government about the guns, because they can’t be traced.


The rule is expected to change the definition of a firearm under federal law to include unfinished parts, like the frame of a handgun or the receiver of a long gun.

In its proposed rule released last May, ATF said it was also seeking to require manufacturers and dealers who sell parts for ghost guns to be licensed by the federal government and to require federally licensed firearms dealers to add a serial number to any unserialized guns they plan to sell.

Some states, like California, have enacted laws in recent years requiring serial numbers to be stamped on ghost guns.

The ATF rule would also require firearms dealers to run background checks before they sell kits that contain parts needed to assemble a firearm.

For years, federal officials have been sounding the alarm about a growing black market for homemade, military-style semiautomatic rifles and handguns. As well as turning up more frequently at crime scenes, ghost guns have been increasingly encountered when federal agents buy weapons in undercover operations from gang members and other criminals.

The critical component in building an untraceable gun is what is known as the lower receiver, a part typically made of metal or polymer. An unfinished receiver — sometimes referred to as an “80% receiver” — with no serial numbers or other markings can be bought online legally, no license required.


Police across the U.S. are reporting spikes in ghost guns being recovered by officers. The New York Police Department, for example, said officers found 131 unserialized firearms since January.

A gunman who killed his wife and four others in 2017 in Northern California had been prohibited from owning firearms but built his own to skirt the court order before his rampage. And in 2019, a teenager used a homemade handgun to fatally shoot two classmates and wound three others at a school in suburban Los Angeles.