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Virginia joins fight for better regulation of ghost guns

(© Brad –

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, for more than 30 years, classified the core components of handguns and rifles as “firearms” subject to federal regulation if the components could be quickly and easily converted into functioning guns.

In 2015, the ATF, without offering any explanation, reversed course, issuing an interpretive rule stating that these rifle receivers and handgun frames were not considered firearms. An industry has since sprung up in which unlicensed online retailers sell nearly-complete guns directly to consumers.

These weapons, sometimes called ghost guns because they lack serial numbers and identifying marks, are untraceable and sold without background checks.

Attorney General Mark R. Herring has joined a coalition of 19 attorneys general in urging the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York to compel ATF to properly regulate untraceable partially-assembled ghost guns.

In an amicus brief filed in Syracuse v. ATF, Herring and his colleagues argue that the ATF must correct its unlawful 2015 interpretation of the Gun Control Act.

The contention is that ATF’s improper reading of the GCA effectively gave the green light for unlicensed online retailers to sell nearly-complete firearms that can easily be converted into fully-functioning weapons.

“These ‘ghost guns’ are incredibly hard to trace, which makes them much easier for dangerous individuals to get their hands on,” Herring said. “The ATF’s reckless interpretation of the law and lack of regulation could lead to more untraceable guns on our street, potentially putting Virginians and their families at risk. As attorney general, my number one responsibility is to protect Virginians, which is why I am joining my colleagues in fighting to stop the proliferation of dangerous, untraceable guns into our communities.”

Everytown for Gun Safety and four municipalities filed a suit against the ATF and the U.S. Department of Justice in August alleging that those agencies unlawfully concluded that ghost guns are not “firearms” under the GCA.

In an amicus brief supporting the plaintiffs, Attorney General Herring and his colleagues are urging the court to force ATF to properly regulate ghost guns because:

  • Ghost guns are prohibited by federal law:The GCA requires “firearms” to include serial numbers and purchasers of those weapons to pass a background check, among other requirements. Specifically, the statute defines “firearm” as “any weapon which will or is designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projective by the action of an explosive” or “the frame or receiver of any such weapon.” This clearly describes the nearly assembled guns these companies are selling, which are sold without background checks and not marked with serial numbers.
  • Untraceable weapons threaten public safety:ATF’s unexplained interpretation emboldened the ghost gun industry and allowed it to rapidly expand across the country. Ghost guns were virtually absent from many jurisdictions prior to the adoption of the new interpretation. Now, according to a recent report, there are 80 online sellers of partially unfinished frames and receivers, and the increase in ghost gun sales is readily apparent on the local level. [Add state/local info here, or feel free to keep the DC example: In the District, prior to 2017, the Metropolitan Police Department had never recovered a ghost gun. In 2017, MPD recovered three such weapons. In 2018, that number rose to 25, and then nearly quintupled, to 116, in 2019. Three of the ghost guns recovered in 2019 were involved in murders. That trend has continued this year, and from January 1 to of May 29, 2020, MPD recovered 106 ghost guns.]
  • Ghost gun dealers are using the ATF’s rule to mislead consumers:Companies that sell ghost guns have pointed to the ATF’s rule to claim their products are legal, disregarding numerous state laws that specifically ban the sale of these firearms.

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