A First Since 1968. DOJ Proposes New Regulation To Update Definition Of Firearms

May 10, 2021

By a Biometrica Staffer

On April 8, speaking from the Rose Garden less than 24 hours after another mass shooting, President Joe Biden announced an initial set of measures to take on what he called “an epidemic” of gun violence. He stated that Department of Justice (DOJ), would, within 30 days, issue two proposed rule changes: The first would be to stop the proliferation of “ghost guns,” the second would make clear that when a device was marketed as a stabilizing brace, it would be subject to the requirements of the National Firearms Act

On Friday, May 7, the Department of Justice quietly issued a notice proposing an update to the definitions of the term “firearm” and related parts (of a firearm). According to a statement from the DOJ, the proposed rule would modernize the definition of the “frame or receiver” and help close a regulatory loophole associated with privately assembled firearms increasingly being used and found at crime scenes across the country.

These firearms, the “ghost guns” President Biden referred to, are basically self-assembled firearms with parts that do not include serial numbers. As they’re handmade, they do not require background checks and the acquisition of a ghost gun skirts federal gun laws. When you buy a gun from a licensed dealer, that gun, or more specifically, its receiver, is made by a licensed manufacturer, and is marked. It has a serial number that can be traced, which is invaluable for tracking crimes. 

The intention of the rule is to require that components in gun-assembling kits have serial numbers that would allow them to be traced when found at crime scenes, and for the kits (receivers) to be legally classified as firearms. 

“We are committed to taking commonsense steps to address the epidemic of gun violence that takes the lives of too many people in our communities,” Attorney General Merrick B. Garland stated. “Criminals and others barred from owning a gun should not be able to exploit a loophole to evade background checks and to escape detection by law enforcement. This proposed rule would help keep guns out of the wrong hands and make it easier for law enforcement to trace guns used to commit violent crimes, while protecting the rights of law-abiding Americans. Although this rulemaking will solve only one aspect of the problem, we have an obligation to do our part to keep our families and our neighborhoods safe from gun violence.”

Even if Friday’s announcement was not unexpected, it was significant. To put this in context, according to the DOJ, when it last proposed a rule change of this kind, it was 1968, and the United States was reeling from the aftermath of the assassination of a President, and the back-to-back assassinations of a Presidential candidate and the greatest civil rights icon this country had seen.

After five years of intense debate, beginning after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963, and culminating in the gunning down of Martin Luther King, Jr. (April 1968) and Robert F. Kennedy (June 1968), Congress passed the Gun Control Act (GCA) to stop the possession of firearms by prohibited persons and help law enforcement curb increasing crime rates.

The Gun Control Act was itself the first major piece of firearm legislation since the passage of the 1938 Federal Firearms Act, which the GCA repealed but in effect, replaced, as it kept many of the provisions of the 1938 Act. The 1938 Act required gun manufacturers, firearm importers, and any dealers to obtain what’s called a Federal Firearms License or FFL. It also made it so defined individuals, including convicted felons, could not buy firearms, and expanded the definition of “machine gun.”  

The GCA, since amended several times, and the first piece of comprehensive firearms legislation this country enacted — the National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934 — remain the centerpieces of firearm regulation in this country.   

According to the DOJ’s statement from May 7, in the period between 2016 and 2020, more than 23,000 un-serialized firearms were reported to have been recovered by law enforcement from potential crime scenes — including in connection with 325 homicides or attempted homicides. The proposed rule, once implemented, would help address the proliferation of these un-serialized firearms in three ways:

  • To help keep guns from being sold to convicted felons and other prohibited purchasers, the rule would make clear that retailers must run background checks before selling kits that contain the parts necessary for someone to readily make a gun at home.
  • To help law enforcement trace guns used in a crime, the rule would require that manufacturers include a serial number on the firearm “frame or receiver” in easy-to-build firearm kits.
  • To help reduce the number of “ghost guns” on our streets, the rule would set out requirements for federally licensed firearms dealers to have a serial number added to 3D printed guns or other un-serialized firearms they take into inventory.

Once the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register, the public will have 90 days to submit comments. The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking can be viewed here.

Biometrica has been following the gun debate closely.  

Read more on President Biden’s executive actions here.

Read more on the record Q1 — the highest quarter ever recorded for background checks on individuals wanting to buy guns — here.

Read more on the President’s address to Congress on this here.

Read more on the Indianapolis mass shooting at FedEx here.

Read more on the Orange, CA, mass shooting here.

Read more on the Boulder shooting and its victims here.

Read more on gun violence, opioids and the risk to healthcare professionals here.

Read more on the 9th Circuit ruling on the right to carry in public here.

Read more on proposed background check laws in front of the 117th Congress here.

Read more on our analysis of the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, mass casualty incidents and their investigations, here