This op-ed originally appeared in USA Today on April 11, 2022.
Law enforcement officers across the country increasingly find there is no way to trace certain guns they recover from crime scenes. Because these guns are not marked with serial numbers, there is no way to track their origins or their owners. And because they are sold without a background check, anyone can buy them.
They truly are "ghost guns."
These unmarked guns are easy to buy, particularly in the form of a build-your-own kit that allows someone to quickly turn parts in a box into a gun capable of firing a bullet.
Last year, President Joe Biden and I announced that I had directed the federal agency responsible for regulating firearms, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, to modernize our regulations to reflect the fact that today's firearms need not be cast or forged but can be created from kits and by 3D printers. The Department of Justice committed to take action to prevent criminals and other prohibited people from easily purchasing untraceable guns.
This morning, the department is submitting a final rule that will help keep guns out of the hands of criminals and save lives.
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.
This means that those who engage in the business of dealing in these guns will be required to mark every frame or receiver with a serial number so that the guns can be traced if they are used in crimes.
Those who commercially sell these guns must be federally licensed, maintain records and run background checks before a sale – as they would have to do with any other firearm. And any federal firearms licensee who takes into inventory a ghost gun without a serial number will be required to add one.
These changes will make it harder for criminals and other prohibited persons to get their hands on untraceable guns. They will help ensure that law enforcement officers can get the information they need to solve crimes.
The regulations also will help reduce the number of untraceable firearms flooding into our communities. And they will achieve these important law enforcement objectives while respecting the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans.
These changes are long overdue. Despite changes in technology, federal regulations that define what a "firearm" is have not been updated in more than 50 years. Meanwhile, since 2016, there has been a more than tenfold increase in the annual number of ghost guns recovered by law enforcement in criminal investigations and reported to ATF. That amounts to tens of thousands of guns, including guns recovered in connection with homicides and attempted homicides.
These changes represent only one part of the Justice Department’s efforts to double down on the fight to protect our communities from violent crime and from the gun violence that often drives it.
In partnership with state, local, tribal and territorial law enforcement, we are working to defeat the scourge of gun violence. That includes disrupting illegal gun trafficking networks – from the jurisdictions where guns originate to the places where the guns are used to commit violent crimes.
Our U.S. attorney offices are prioritizing prosecutions of the most dangerous offenders who are responsible for the greatest violence, those who illegally traffic in firearms, and those who act as straw purchasers. Our federal law enforcement agents are recovering and tracing illegal guns. And as we work with our partners in law enforcement, we are likewise committed to supporting local community leaders in their efforts to keep their communities safe.
At the U.S. Department of Justice, we will be tireless in our efforts to put an end to the plague of gun violence and save the lives of those we love.