By Anand Vasu
On Thursday morning, speaking from the Rose Garden and flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris and Attorney General Merrick Garland and less than 24 hours after yet another mass shooting, this time in South Carolina, President Joe Biden announced an initial set of measures to take on what he called “an epidemic” of gun violence. The proposed action includes two significant ones that have already riled the NRA. The first is that the Justice Department (DOJ), will, within 30 days, issue a proposed rule to help stop the proliferation of “ghost guns.”
Ghost guns are 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 would be to require that components in gun-assembling kits have serial numbers that would allow them to be traced and for the kits (receivers) to be legally classified as firearms.
In addition, the DOJ will also issue a proposed rule to make clear that when a device is marketed as a stabilizing brace, it will be subject to the requirements of the National Firearms Act. The alleged shooter in the Boulder mass shooting in March reportedly used a pistol with an arm brace, which can make a firearm more stable and accurate while still being concealable. A brace is a modification to a pistol that can effectively turn it into a short-barreled rifle by stabilizing the shooter’s arm.
The DOJ will also publish model “red flag” legislation for states. Red flag laws allow family members or law enforcement to petition for a court order temporarily barring people in crisis from accessing firearms if they present a danger to themselves or others.
Separately, President Biden will nominate David Chipman to serve as Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. The ATF has not had a confirmed director since 2015. Chipman served at the ATF for 25 years, before moving on to be a prominent gun safety advocate, and a senior policy adviser at Giffords, a gun safety group set up by former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, after she was seriously injured in a 2011 mass shooting.
Expectations Before Biden’s Press Conference
The measures Biden announced were expected to be twofold, before he spoke today. The administration was expected to look at curbing the proliferation of ghost guns, or firearms that lack serial numbers. In some cases these guns could be constructed at home from kits. In addition, there was to be regulation of stabilizing braces, which allow pistols to be used more like rifles.
“ATF is really the key agency that enforces our nation’s gun laws,” Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, told npr. “And it has to have a confirmed director in order to do so, and in order to do the very best job it can. But it hasn’t had a confirmed director since 2015.”
While specific details on the proposals were not yet available before the press conference, the Justice Department is set to formalize the proposals within 30 days.
House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy sharply criticized the proposals. “President Biden plans to announce his attempts to trample over our constitutional 2A rights by executive fiat,” McCarthy wrote on Twitter. “He is soft on crime, but infringes on the rights of law-abiding citizens. I won’t stand for it. And neither will House Republicans. Follow the Constitution!”
Meanwhile, in California, Assemblyman Marc Levine has proposed a new tax on the sale of guns and ammunition in the state. The proposed legislation will place a $25 excise tax on retailers for the sale of new weapons, and an as yet undetermined tax on ammunition that will be used to to boost funding for violence prevention programs, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“Gun violence will not end on its own,” Levine told the Assembly Public Safety Committee during a hearing on April 6. “We must take responsible action to end the public health crisis that is gun violence in our state, in our nation.”
The panel voted 5 to 2 approving the legislation, which comes in response to the recent mass shootings in Orange, California, about 30 miles southeast of Los Angeles, in Boulder, Colorado, and in Atlanta. The legislation still needs approval from the full Assembly.
Advocates for gun owners called the tax unconstitutional. “This legislation will make it even more difficult and expensive for law-abiding individuals, especially those living in underserved, high-crime communities, to protect themselves and their families,” said Daniel Reid, western regional director for the NRA Institute for Legislative Action.
Reid said that any such tax should be collected from the public at large, and not only from gun owners. “To put it on gun owners is unconscionable,” he added.
In Nevada, Assembly Bill 286, which will regulate the purchase of ghost guns, got support from Nevada Moms Demand Action and Students Demand Action, 3News reported. The bill will have to pass both chambers of legislature before it reaches the desk of Governor Steve Sisolak.
In Arizona, on March 6, Governor Doug Ducey signed legislation that aims to prohibit police and sheriffs from enforcing federal gun laws that violate the 2nd Amendment. Those backing the legislation said that it would protect against potential overreach from President Biden’s new measures while critics said it would undermine the rule of law, AP reported.
While there were fewer mass shooting incidents (those where at least four people, not counting the shooter, were killed), the Covid-19 pandemic period was one in which there was no slow down in gun-related deaths. In 2020, nearly 20,000 lives were lost to gun violence, according to the Gun Violence Archive. This was the highest number of any year in the last 20 years. The report said that in 2020, an additional 24,000 people died by suicide using a gun.
The next highest year of gun deaths was 2017, but in that year 3,600 fewer people succumbed, The Washington Post reported. The number of injuries caused by guns was also much higher, 40,000 in 2020, compared to 32,000 in 2017.
“The GCA and NFA generally regulate “firearms” and not individual components and, as such, ATF does not classify unregulated components or accessories alone. However, components or accessories can affect the overall classification of a firearm because: (1) How a component or accessory is actually used may be relevant in assessing the manufacturer’s or maker’s intent with respect to the design of a firearm; or (2) the design of a component or accessory may result in a firearm falling within a particular statutory definition. Stabilizing braces are one such component or accessory that ATF has encountered,” the Congressional Research Service said in a February 2021 report.
Ghost Guns And Stabilizing Braces
What is a ghost gun?
Essentially, ghost guns are 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, and that gun, or more specifically, its receiver, is made by a licensed manufacturer, it is marked. It has a serial number that can be traced, which is invaluable when you’re tracking crimes.
A ghost gun is made from untraceable parts but those parts can be bought separately in stores, or online, and can be put together to make pretty much any gun, including an AR-15.
As things stand, federal gun law regulates aspects of parts, basically the receiver or the frame of the gun, which is considered the actual firearm itself. This “receiver” contains parts of a firearm — like the hammer, bolt, breechblock, firing pin and extractor — that are instrumental in allowing a gun to actually fire.
Under the Gun Control Act, manufacturers are required to mark it with the maker’s name, the serial number (the unique identifier), the model and the caliber. If a gun has multiple receiver parts, like in an AR-15, the lower receiver is considered the legal firearm and is marked.
As an unfinished receiver is basically still a piece of metal, it is not considered a firearm and is easily available. To finish it, you have to drill holes into that piece of metal, make a couple of other modifications, combine it with other parts, and that’s basically it. You have a firearm.
Unfinished receivers (also called “blanks”) are unregulated and typically sold to gun enthusiasts. They’ve been used in mass shootings before. You can look this up but I think one was used in the shooting in Santa Monica College, and another ghost gun was used by a 16 year old who shot fell students in Saugus. (Link to both shootings, should be available) 3D printed receivers are also available, including for the AR-15.
What is a stabilizing brace?
It’s basically a modification to a pistol that can effectively turn it into a short-barreled rifle by stabilizing the shooter’s arm. It was reportedly used in the Boulder shooting, allowing the shooter to turn his semiautomatic pistol into a more lethal weapon. The idea behind the reported Biden proposal will be to regulate the braces so they come under the ambit of the National Firearms Act, which regulates sawed off shotguns and other semiautomatic and automatic rifles.