President Joe Biden on Monday announced a series of actions aimed at combatting so-called "ghost guns," privately made firearms without serial numbers that are being found at crime scenes across the country, including naming a former federal prosecutor to serve as director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“This is an agency whose mission is to protect communities from violent criminals, illegal trafficking and firearms, acts of arson, bombing and a lot more,” Biden said of the ATF from the Rose Garden on Monday. “The mission of this agency isn't controversial. It's public safety.”
President Biden on said he is nominating Steve Dettelbach, an Obama-era U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, to run the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The White House described Dettelbach as someone who won bipartisan praise and support from law enforcement for his tough stance on fighting crime.
"[Dettelbach] has a proven track record of working with federal, state, and local law enforcement to fight violent crime and combat domestic violent extremism and religious violence – including through partnerships with the ATF to prosecute complex cases and take down violent criminal gangs," the White House said.
"Dettelbach also worked closely with local law enforcement and community leaders to develop and implement data-driven and neighborhood-based efforts to prevent and fight violent crime," they added. "His leadership and his record of innovation in fighting crime and violence make him ready from day one to aggressively and creatively address these pressing issues at the Director of ATF."
Biden was forced to withdraw his first nomination to run the bureau, former ATF agent and gun control advocate David Chipman, after opposition from Republicans and some Democrats.
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. Attorney B. Todd Jones, has been confirmed. Jones made it through the Senate in 2013 but only after a six-month struggle. Jones was acting director when President Barack Obama nominated him in January 2013.
"Our view is that if Republicans are about getting tough on crime, as we are, in keeping our communities safe, they should support a career prosecutor like Steve Dettelbach, who can make ATF more effective in getting guns off our streets and stopping criminals," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday when asked if the administration is optimistic about the chances of Dettelbach's nomination passing the Senate. "And it's in all of our interests to have a confirmed nominee and we think he is eminently qualified to do exactly that."
Biden formally introduced Dettelbach, who was present at Monday’s ceremony, as someone who is “immensely qualified” for the job, adding: “I look forward to working with the Senate to get him confirmed once again.”
Dettelbach, who offered brief remarks at Monday's event, pledged to "support the men or women of the ATF and to do everything in our power to protect the people of this nation every single day," should he be confirmed.
"As we emerge from this pandemic, got to recognize that many Americans still face fear and isolation not because of a virus, but because of an epidemic of firearms violence," he added. "It's not a new problem, and it has many causes. That's why it's going to take an all hands on deck partnership approach to address that issue. And the ATF will be there."
The president spent much of his speech focusing on the threat posed by so-called “ghost guns,” homemade firearms that usually are assembled from parts and milled with a metal-cutting machine and often lack serial numbers used to trace them.
Biden on Monday announced a final rule to ban “the business of manufacturing the most accessible ghost guns,” like the make-your-own gun kits that can be purchased online or in-stores without a background check, and qualifies such kits as firearms under the Gun Control Act.
The president acknowledged that he issued this rule due to "trouble" getting gun control legislation through Congress. Biden said that the National Rifle Association, the powerful pro-gun lobby, called the rule "extreme."
"Let me ask you: Is it extreme to protect police officers and protect our children?" Biden asked. "Extreme to keep guns out of the hands of people who couldn’t even pass a background check? The idea that someone on the terrorist list could purchase one of these guns. It isn't extreme, it's just basic common sense."
Biden was introduced by Mia Tretta, a young woman who was injured when a fellow student opened fire in November 2019 at Saugus High School in California. Tretta, who was shot in the stomach, was among five students injured during the attack; her friend, Dominic Blackwell, and fellow student Gracie Anne Muehlberger were both killed.
“I later learned that we had been shot by a 16-year-old student, for reasons I will never know,” Tretta said Monday. “He had brought his father's weapon to school. A firearm I would come to know as a ghost gun.”
“Ghost guns are untraceable, build-it-yourself firearms that look like a gun, shoot like a gun and kill like a gun. But have not been regulated like a gun,” she continued. "And the most lasting thing I've learned – other than the loss of friends or the shattering of my youth – is that nothing has relieved the pain in my heart, like working to prevent more senseless shootings.”
Biden, who brought an example ghost gun kit to the White House event on Monday, called the new regulations "basic common sense."
"Starting today, weapons like the one used in Saugus High School [...] are being treated like the deadly firearms they are,” Biden said of the new rule. “And if somebody sells a ghost gun to a federally licensed dealer, for example, a pawn shop, that dealer must make the firearm and mark it with a serial number before reselling it.”
“All of a sudden, it's no longer a ghost. It has a return address. It's going to help save lives, reduce crime, and get more criminals off the streets,” Biden added.
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 the Justice Department to finish the rule for months.
"The Biden administration is making sure these kits are treated as the deadly firearms they are," a senior administration official said ahead of the announcement.
The rule will probably be met with heavy resistance from gun groups and draw litigation in the coming weeks.
On Sunday, the Senate’s top Democrat, Sen. Chuck 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 said in a statement. “My message is a simple one: No more waiting on these proposed federal rules.” Ghost guns are “too easy to build, too hard to trace and too dangerous to ignore.”
According to data from the Justice Department, 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 in many cases police departments don’t contact the government about the guns because they can’t be traced.
Last year alone, the White House said, about 20,000 suspected ghost guns reported to ATF as having been recovered by law enforcement, about tenfold increase from 2016, the White House said.
"Because ghost guns lack the serial numbers marked on other firearms, law enforcement has an exceedingly difficult time tracing a ghost gun found at a crime scene back to an individual purchaser," the White House said in a statement.
The new rule bans the business of manufacturing accessible ghost guns, including "unserialized 'buy build shoot' kits that individuals can buy online or at a store without a background check and can readily assemble into a working firearm in as little as 30 minutes with equipment they have at home," the White House added. "This rule clarifies that these kits qualify as 'firearms' under the Gun Control Act, and that commercial manufacturers of such kits must therefore become licensed and include serial numbers on the kits’ frame or receiver, and commercial sellers of these kits must become federally licensed and run background checks prior to a sale – just like they have to do with other commercially-made firearms."
The final rule, the administration said, will also turn some ghost guns in circulation into serialized guns.
"Through this rule, the Justice Department is requiring federally licensed dealers and gunsmiths taking any unserialized firearm into inventory to serialize that weapon," the White House said. "For example, if an individual builds a firearm at home and then sells it to a pawn broker or another federally licensed dealer, that dealer must put a serial number on the weapon before selling it to a customer. This requirement will apply regardless of how the firearm was made, meaning it includes ghost guns made from individual parts, kits, or by 3D-printers."
Gun control advocates cheered the Biden administration's announcements.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams said that Biden's announcement "will help dam this river of violence" and even offered praise for Dettelbach, calling him an "outstanding choice" and urging Congress to "expeditiously to confirm his appointment with a bipartisan vote."
"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,” John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said in a statement.
"Since the start of the pandemic, about 100 million additional weapons, plus the unknown number of ghost guns have been added to American streets," said Fred Guttenberg, who became an advocate after his daughter, Jamie, was killed in the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
"I am thankful for the additional measures, to include an ATF announcement, happening today," Guttenberg, who shared a photo of himself at the White House ahead of the announcement, said, adding: "With the failure of the Senate to pass any legislation, he is using every tool he has through executive actions to save lives."
For years, federal officials have been sounding the alarm about an increasing black market for homemade, military-style semi-automatic rifles and handguns. As well as turning up more frequently at crime scenes, ghost guns have been increasingly encountered when federal agents buy guns in undercover operations from gang members and other criminals.
Some states, like California, have enacted laws in recent years to require serial numbers to be stamped on ghost guns.
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-percent receiver” — can be legally bought online with no serial numbers or other markings on it, no license required.
Police across the country have been 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 Northern California in 2017 had been prohibited from owning firearms, but he 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.