With firearms being regulated by only a patchwork of laws across the country and Congress unlikely to pass any meaningful legislation in the near future, advocates have pressed the Biden administration for months to take further action to limit gun violence.
“I think the ball is really in the administration’s court right now. The administration can do some very significant things in the next few months to save lives,” Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut and one of the staunchest advocates for gun control laws in the Senate, told The New Republic on Thursday.
Although President Joe Biden proposed new actions on gun violence prevention last year, they have not yet been finalized. In the meantime, advocates have grumbled that Biden was dragging his feet in nominating someone to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, which has not had a permanent director since 2015. (Biden’s previous nominee, David Chipman, withdrew his nomination amid opposition from gun rights groups and concerns from some Democrats.) Last week, several gun control advocacy groups gave Biden a D+ on a “Gun Violence Prevention Report Card.”
But the White House announced two actions this week that may placate Biden’s critics, at least for now: the nomination of Steven Dettelbach to lead the ATF and the issuance of the final rule to crack down on so-called “ghost guns,” unserialized and untraceable firearms made from components that can be purchased online.
“These updated regulations make clear that parts kits that can readily be converted into assembled firearms will be treated under federal law as what they are: firearms. And the manufacturers and sellers of these kits will be subject to the same federal laws as all other gun manufacturers and sellers,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in an op-ed published in USA Today on Monday. The new rule will amend the definition of “firearm” and “frame and receiver” to cover kits and components that create ghost guns, allowing them to be treated like firearms under federal law. It will also require manufacturers who sell components to assemble into ghost guns to be licensed and run background checks on potential buyers.
“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,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, in a statement on Monday.
In remarks at the White House, Biden preemptively pushed back against criticisms from gun rights groups that the action on ghost guns could be considered “extreme.” “Is it extreme to protect police officers, extreme to protect our children?” Biden asked rhetorically. “It isn’t extreme, it’s basic common sense.” (Biden’s emphasis on protecting law enforcement and on the need to fund the police reflects the recent pivot he has made to focusing on issues such as crime and the economy in his remarks, as a counter to Republican critiques.)
Accepting the nomination, Dettelbach said that he would work to support ATF officers and tackle the “epidemic” of gun violence. “It’s going to take an all-hands-on-deck partnership approach to address that issue,” he said. “If confirmed, I promise to support the men and women of the ATF and do everything in our power to protect the people of this nation.”
More than 45,000 people died from gun-related injuries in 2020, a new record and a 14 percent increase from the previous year, according to an analysis of federal data by Pew Research. More than half of those gun deaths were suicides. Gun murders have also increased in recent years, increasing by 34 percent in 2020 over the previous year. Nearly 80 percent of homicides in 2020 involved a firearm. Multiple cities have seen a dramatic increase in homicides in recent years. According to data from consulting company AH Datalytics, murders are up by 2.9 percent in 2022 compared to this time last year. Crime is increasingly a priority among voters across party lines; a CBS News poll published on Sunday found that 74 percent of Republicans, 54 percent of independents, and 50 percent of Democrats believe crime is a high priority.
The rise in homicides is due in part to the proliferation of ghost guns. According to the ATF, roughly 20,000 suspected ghost guns were recovered during criminal investigations last year, a tenfold increase since 2016. The use of ghost guns has particularly proliferated in states with stricter firearm regulations, such as California, where 25 to 50 percent of guns recovered at crime scenes over the past 18 months were ghost guns, The New York Times reported. California Attorney General Rob Bonta told reporters in a Monday press call with Giffords, a gun control advocacy organization, that the number of ghost guns recovered at crime scenes in Los Angeles had increased by 400 percent since 2017.
“Rural to urban, coastal to inland, you can’t talk about crime without talking about gun violence and ghost guns,” Bonta told reporters. Monday’s announcement of the finalized rule comes after California and the Giffords organization sued the ATF in 2019 to close the loophole excluding ghost gun components from federal laws, and Everytown and four cities also sued the ATF in 2020.
Since November, at least four school shootings involved the suspected shooters using ghost guns. “The number of ghost guns we are seeing in our streets, and in the hands of those who are committing violence, is growing continuously,” said Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott in a press conference last week. Baltimore police have seized 600 ghost guns since 2019, according to its police chief. The Maryland legislature recently passed a measure to ban ghost guns, and 10 other states as well as the District of Columbia have laws to ban or regulate them.
But passing laws on a state-by-state basis isn’t enough to address the problem, advocates say. “We can tighten our laws till the wrench is fully turned,” Murphy told The New Republic, saying that many of the firearms used in crimes in Connecticut, which has relatively strict gun laws, come from out of state. “So we have to persist in our efforts to find a national solution because guns don’t really observe state borders.”
However, gun rights groups argue that actions targeting ghost guns amount to federal overreach that would not deter criminals, and this rule is likely to be challenged in court. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley sent a letter to Garland in February arguing that ghost guns are involved in a relatively small number of homicides and that the Justice Department is “spending precious time and resources on a solution that will have minimal effects and will misdirect these resources from violent crime prevention to gun control.”
Gun control advocates say that it is also critical to get a nominee confirmed quickly. There is a midterm election fast approaching with Democrats at risk of losing the Senate, meaning that if Biden wants his nominee elevated to the post, it needs to happen sooner rather than later. Dettelbach, a former federal attorney who unsuccessfully ran to be attorney general of Ohio in 2018, has the advantage of full-throated support from one of his home senators, Senator Sherrod Brown. Politico reported last week that Brown had been pushing for Dettelbach to be the nominee.
“Steve Dettelbach is an experienced public servant who served Ohio as US Attorney with honor and integrity,” Brown said in a statement. “He has demonstrated a strong commitment to justice, inclusive leadership, and to strengthening relationships between law enforcement and the community. He would serve our nation well as ATF Director.”
Opposition from gun rights groups ultimately torpedoed Chipman’s nomination. The White House may hope Dettelbach will have a smoother path to confirmation than Chipman, a senior policy adviser at Giffords. However, gun rights groups will likely still view Dettelbach with skepticism.
“At this current juncture, it is quite clear that groups like the National Shooting Sports Foundation and other representatives of the gun industry are actually setting the priorities of our government as it tries to address gun violence. And we need the president to be setting the agenda to keep Americans safe,” said Chipman in the press call on Monday; Chipman faced strenuous opposition from the NSSF.
But there’s only so much that the president can do on his own. In his remarks on Monday, Biden called on Congress to take action on gun control. “We need Congress to pass universal background checks,” Biden said, adding that he wanted Congress to ban assault weapons. But with the Democratic margin in the Senate so narrow, those words are likely to remain a rallying cry, not a reality.