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ATF director touts rule cracking down on 'ghost guns' while in Tampa

Firearms and components of firearms spread out on a table
Natalie Kolb/Commonwealth Media Services
Commonwealth Media Services
Law enforcement officials say ghost guns are difficult to trace because they lack serial numbers and buyers don't have to get background checks.

The rule aims to help law enforcement trace these homemade weapons when used in crimes. The U.S. Supreme Court recently allowed ATF to resume enforcing the restrictions while a legal challenge continues.

One of the nation’s top law enforcement officials says he hopes a rule regulating “ghost guns” will aid in efforts to crack down on a recent proliferation of these weapons.

Steven Dettelbach, director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives talked about the issue during a recent visit to Tampa.

Ghost guns, or privately made firearms, are guns that people can assemble at home from kits or separate components.

"And the reason we call them ghost guns is because they're largely untraceable, because there are no background checks run — it's not because they don't kill people, they kill people just the same," Dettelbach said.

Traditional firearms sold by licensed dealers require serial numbers, and buyers need to complete background checks. But that wasn't the case for components of ghost guns until the agency issued a rule last year regulating them.

The rule, which went into effect in August 2022, updated the definition of a “firearm” under the Gun Control Act to include certain D.I.Y. parts kits and clarifies some partially-assembled frames and receivers from parts kits are also subject to regulation.

Here's what the ATF director says the agency is doing to stop the flow of illegal guns in the U.S.
During a recent visit to Tampa, ATF director Steven Dettelbach discussed the threat of machine gun conversion devices and how the agency is fighting gun trafficking.
ATF director Steven Dettelbach sits in a conference room. A sign reading "ATF Tampa Field Division" is in the background.

It did not ban the sale or possession or sale of these kits, but instead required sellers to obtain licenses, add serial numbers to their products, conduct background checks and maintain records.

“The reason we run background checks is to prevent people who everybody agrees shouldn't have firearms from getting them,” Dettelbach said. “The other reason we want people to obey the law is because those serial numbers on the guns let us catch killers.”

But the measure has faced legal challenges. The U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the rule earlier this month after a lower court blocked the regulation in July.

U.S. District Court Judge Reed O'Connor sided with plaintiffs, including gun rights advocates and groups that make or sell products affected by the rule, who argued the restrictions are unlawful and that the Biden administration overstepped its authority in issuing them.

The 5-4 order from the Supreme Court allows ATF to enforce the rule while an appeal to the lower court ruling continues.

Federal officials say the number of ghost guns used in crimes has soared in recent years.

Earlier this year, ATF reported that 19,273 suspected privately-made firearms were recovered by law enforcement in 2021, a 1,083% increase from 2017.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.