The problem with imposing legal restrictions intended to stop a practice that is designed to evade legal restrictions is that you were outflanked before you even started. That's the challenge for President Joe Biden and lawmakers around the country as they consider limits on "ghost guns"—homemade guns that are created, owned, and used off the government's radar. Do-it-yourself manufacturing has always hobbled authorities' ability to control things they don't like, and the modern ghost gun movement specifically evolved to put personal armaments beyond the reach of the state.
"The White House is weighing a number of gun safety proposals as it looks to deliver on President Joe Biden's campaign promises," Politico reported this week. "Among the executive actions under consideration by the administration is one that would require buyers of so-called ghost guns — homemade or makeshift firearms that lack serial numbers — to undergo background checks, according to three people who have spoken to the White House about their plans."
Actually, this is somewhat misleading. Under current federal law (some states have tighter rules) as interpreted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, "[a]n individual may generally make a firearm for personal use. However, individuals engaged in the business of manufacturing firearms for sale or distribution must be licensed by ATF." Basically, the law already regulates the manufacture of firearms for sale no matter how the gun was created.
Presumably, then, the Biden administration is considering regulating the partial kits that are sold for people to finish and assemble into working firearms. So-called "80 percent receivers" would then be treated as complete firearms—if you could successfully define something that can, with work, be turned into a finished product without also banning materials used in other ways. While we don't know the administration's plan, a bill working its way through the Virginia General Assembly specifies, "'Unfinished frame or receiver' means a piece of any material that does not constitute the frame or receiver of a firearm, rifle, or shotgun but that has been shaped or formed in any way for the purpose of becoming the frame or receiver of a firearm, rifle, or shotgun, and which may readily be made into a functional frame or receiver through milling, drilling, or other means."
That might successfully target products explicitly marketed as 80 percent receivers, but those are conveniences for use with a jig and a few tools, as then-Reason producer Mark McDaniel detailed in 2018. Going beyond such products threatens to imperil whole aisles at home improvement outlets if the language is rigidly enforced.
"It's hard to imagine stopping it, short of banning 3D printers or metal pipes," Slate's Ari Schneider observed recently of the FGC-9, a semiautomatic weapon that's the latest brainstorm of DIY gun enthusiasts. "Most of the gun is 3D-printed, while the rest includes inconspicuous parts available at hardware stores," he noted.
Plans for the FGC-9 are available at the Defcad repository so that anybody can try their hand at creating ghost guns without being limited to the kits that trouble activists lobbying Biden and Virginia legislators.
That's the main idea behind the modern ghost gun/DIY firearms movement. It's not just a hobby, it's a political movement that Cody Wilson, the inventor of the 3D-printed Liberator single-shot pistol from which the FGC-9 descends, described to Reason in 2018 as "a war on power itself." Wilson, who was briefly sidelined by sexual assault charges, sees his efforts as part of a broader push for personal liberty that also includes Bitcoin and payment systems that enable people to work around centralized authority. The Defense Distributed organization he founded manufactures Ghost Gunner CNC machines for finishing 80 percent frames*. The larger movement continues through more decentralized outlets.
"All individuals are entitled to the utility to defend their humanity. Gun control has failed. You can't stop the signal," boasts the online group Deterrence Dispensed. The group, with members spread around the world, wants to "make it impossible for authorities anywhere to stop people having a gun," as a 2020 documentary put it. The presumably pseudonymous "J Stark," interviewed for the documentary, says that people should have access to the same force that's available to those who rule over them.
The ghost gun movement, then, disobeys intrusive laws and actively works to render government restrictions ineffective. Placing tighter restrictions on 80 percent receivers or other precursor parts for firearms is equivalent to the old Soviet regime trying to shut down the samizdat underground press by regulating copiers; it was an inconvenience, but the publishing network worked around the restrictions.
That the Politico piece goes on to describe gun control activists' frustration at Biden's seeming slowness to act may be a sign that the administration is aware that any such efforts are likely to be ineffective. Disappointing supporters is one thing, but officials especially dread being ignored. In recent years, Connecticut's assault weapon registration requirement drew only about 15 percent compliance, while New York's similar law stalled at 5 percent. Officials were left looking impotent.
Or perhaps the Biden administration realizes that shifts in the culture have left Americans less receptive to incursions on their self-defense rights. Last year, many people took to the streets to protest against abusive and biased policing, while others were left to defend homes and businesses neglected by overwhelmed law enforcement agencies. Legal gun sales hit an all-time high, according to FBI background check records, as millions of people, many of them Biden voters, grew skeptical of the authorities and took responsibility for their own safety. As a result, "Americans' appetite for gun control is the lowest it has been since 2016," Gallup reported in November.
Anti-gun activists clamoring for a crackdown on "ghost guns" will find a rocky reception for their schemes in a population that has become less amenable to disarming itself in deference to the powers that be. And then they'll discover that firearms activists are way ahead of them and have long planned to render such restrictions toothless.
CORRECTION: This piece previously described Defense Distributed founder Cody Wilson as inactive in the organization. That period was temporary and he is now leading the organization again.