ATF's Proposed Rules Threaten a Legal Mess but No End to Ghost Guns

Regulations might reshape DIY gun products, but they can’t eliminate the demand that created the industry.


There's little reason to expect the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' (ATF) proposed "ghost gun" regulations to actually eliminate ghost guns. That doesn't mean that plans to regulate the market for 80 percent receivers and otherwise impose new red tape on gun users and makers won't have an impact—they will undoubtedly create headaches for many people. But it does mean that the vague verbiage in the proposed rules has a long way to go through a comment period, implementation efforts, and court challenges before we know what it means. And it certainly won't be the end of home-manufactured "ghost guns" no matter the advertising.

President Joe Biden entered the White House promising to toughen government restrictions on privately owned firearms, but most of his schemes require legislative action of the sort that's tough to get through a closely divided Congress. He can, though, revise administrative rules, such as those around the (legal) home manufacture of firearms (let Reason show you how!).

"The Justice Department, within 30 days, will issue a proposed rule to help stop the proliferation of 'ghost guns,'" the White House announced on April 7. "We are experiencing a growing problem: criminals are buying kits containing nearly all of the components and directions for finishing a firearm within as little as 30 minutes and using these firearms to commit crimes."

In fact, criminals, being criminals, have long armed themselves without regard for laws intended to restrict their activities. "An estimated 287,400 prisoners had possessed a firearm during their offense," the Bureau of Justice Statistics noted in 2016 after a survey of prison inmates. "Among these, more than half (56%) had either stolen it (6%), found it at the scene of the crime (7%), or obtained it off the street or from the underground market (43%). Most of the remainder (25%) had obtained it from a family member or friend, or as a gift. Seven percent had purchased it under their own name from a licensed firearm dealer."

To the extent that privately manufactured guns find their way into criminals' hands, they're just another way of supplying people who don't obey laws anyway. But the president issued his order and the ATF obliged with a 115-page document that redefines what constitutes firearms and addresses popular kits for assembling weapons, among other issues. Since many end users pair kits with unfinished 80 percent receivers (such as for AR-15s) that they finish themselves, these points are of particular concern to gun enthusiasts. 

There is a lot of verbiage in here, but from the perspective of DIY gun makers, one key term is "readily be converted," as in "weapon parts kits that are 'designed to' or 'may readily be converted' to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive are 'firearms' under the [Gun Control Act of 1968]." And yes, the ATF explicitly refers to 80 percent receivers in this context.

So, what does "readily be converted" mean? According to the ATF, "readily" describes "A process that is fairly or reasonably efficient, quick, and easy, but not necessarily the most efficient, speedy, or easy process." The ATF defines "readily" by eight factors "with no single one controlling" including time, ease, expertise, equipment, availability of additional necessary parts, expense, scope, and feasibility. 

That's a pretty wide-ranging set of criteria that potentially encompasses an awful lot, including kits based around AR-15 upper receivers that have not previously been regarded as firearms. The rules can have a far broader reach than that, though, given that the ATF has previously claimed that toy airsoft guns can be turned into firearms. In an age of jigs, online instructional videos, CNC machines, home workshops, 3D printers, and other conveniences that put many projects within reach of hobbyists, it's not obvious where a line will be crossed with the legally fraught goulash of factors that make something readily convertible into a firearm by ATF definition.

An industry insider told me that the ATF obviously is trying to give itself latitude to determine whatever it wants about what constitutes a firearm without objective standards. This way it can evoke any interpretation that seems politically expedient at the moment.

But there are limits even to vague language. The ATF allows that an object must be "clearly identifiable as an unfinished component part of a weapon" to be subject to regulation and that "frame or receiver molds that can accept metal or polymer, unformed blocks of metal, and other articles only in a primordial state would not—without more—be considered a 'partially complete' frame or receiver." At some point, by necessity, a component stops short of being a firearm part and escapes regulation.

That's going to be interesting, since the current market for firearms kits and 80 percent receivers evolved in response to earlier ATF rules. Demand for the kits largely exists among people who oppose legal restrictions. The proposed revisions are part of an ongoing game of whack-a-mole between government officials and gun enthusiasts. What vendors offer in the future will be a response to the outer boundaries of these rules, not just the prohibitionist desires of the current administration or of ATF agents. The industry insider told me that the commercial market for DIY firearms components will ultimately be determined more by consumer demand than by politicians' wishes. If buyers continue to seek products that help them make guns, sellers will find a way to keep them happy.

What that future market looks like won't be determined until after a 90-day comment period, followed by a time during which the ATF pretends to consider the comments, implementation of rules, and then lawsuits over that implementation—lots of lawsuits, probably, as people challenge the ATF on its interpretations of "readily," "time," "ease," and "expertise."

Meanwhile, it's worth remembering that tighter government restrictions aren't a surprise, nor are they serious barriers to making guns. Anticipating the move, DIYers uninterested in obeying such rules have been developing designs and manufacturing techniques for firearms that don't depend on gun-specific parts or particular interpretations of regulations.

"The FGC-9 design is a homemade, semi-auto, 3D printed, polymer 9mm carbine, for $600 in parts and tooling, and a two week build time," AmmoLand's Dean Weingarten wrote last year of one such design. "The strength of the FGC-9 Carbine is it can be produced by an individual, at home, even in a small apartment, if electricity and access to the Internet are available," he added.

The ATF's proposed rule changes will eventually reshape an industry that evolved in response to earlier regulatory interpretations. What federal bureaucrats can't do is abolish the demand for firearms made and owned beyond government control that created that industry.

NEXT: Clubhouse

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  1. I don’t know why they decided to call them ghost guns, they should call them zombie guns or something more scary. But good luck outlawing homemade guns, I think I can build one out of a piece of pipe, a rubber band, and a roofing tack.

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    1. “I don’t know why they decided to call them ghost guns”

      Because they don’t have a serial number from a licensed firearms manufacturer and the paper trail all the way back to the factory that goes with that.

      1. But the original definition of a “ghost gun” was a plastic gun that could go through a metal detector without triggering it. And thus be carried into controlled areas.

        Those were always a fictional threat, but you could understand why they’d be viewed as a threat.

        1. Wouldn’t the metal detector pick up the bullets?

          1. It should. And the cartridge cases too.

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          2. Lead and brass are non-magnetic and wouldn’t trigger a metal detector (they work based on em field distortions when magnetic materials are passed through) Steel core ammunition would be detectable as would most springs.

            1. This is not true. Treasure hunters use metal detectors to find silver and gold, also non-magnetic.

              A metal detector, tuned properly can find anything that will conduct electricity.

              Move an electrical conductor through a stationary magnetic field or pass a moving magnetic field over a stationary conductor and you will induce an electrical current. That current will produce a magnetic field even if the conductor is not naturally magnetic.

              It is this induced magnetic field that metal detectors pick up.

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            2. Eh, depends on the metal detector. Some work that way but most don’t. Note that non-ferrous keys and belt buckles will still trigger most metal detectors.

              However the quantity of metal matters a lot. There’s iron in your blood and the metal detectors wouldn’t be effective if they triggered on that. Or on the metal band holding the eraser to your pencil. I should also point out that the type of metal does affect that minimum detection threshold. So if you had an all-glass gun with just a single .22 bullet even with it’s lead projectile and brass case, that would be far too small to resolve and differentiate from the other trivial sources that generate false positives. A full box of .45 ammunition, on the other hand, would trigger most any metal detector.

              1. Magnetometers detect magnetic field distortions created by ferromagnetic metals like iron, and would not pick up brass or lead. Meanwhile, inductive metal detectors look for zones of conductivity and ferromagnetism, which alter the frequency at which a tuned coil you step through resonates. They can pick up ferrites and conductive metals.

                Neither detects metal in an oxidized state, so you could in theory use lead glass bullets, say, and not trip one.

                And, yes, I’ve accidentally carried a 9mm cartridge (That I’d pocketed after a misfire at the range.) through metal detectors on a round trip domestic flight. Though that was back in the 90’s, the detectors are probably more sensitive today.

              2. Concentration also matters. With only about 4 grams of iron in the body and only four iron atoms per hemoglobin that’s continuously flowing about the body a traditional metal detector doesn’t have a chance. Of course if you souped one up to near NMRI levels then sure, it isn’t impossible just impractical.

                1. None of the iron in your body is in an oxidation state a metal detector would pick up, unless maybe you’ve got a piercing. Heme groups aren’t particularly magnetic.

                  1. Well yeah, when deoxygenated they’re weakly attracted to magnetic fields and when oxygenated they’re weakly repelled by magnetic fields. Which is why you’d pretty much need an NMR type detector to find it. No magnetic domains and no eddy currents pretty much rules out traditional metal detectors.

            3. Wow, you can always tell who slept through science class.

            4. There are three most common metal detector types you will find in the metal detecting market and community. They are VLF, Multi-Frequency, and Pulse Induction metal detectors.

              They are not inherently better than the other as they are different. Each have their benefits and drawbacks. Things like cost, weight, and sensitivity all vary depending on the choice.

              As someone who uses an Excalibur II metal detector and did plenty of research before plunking down in excess of $US1,700 of coin of the realm I am forced to point out I have no problem finding a .22 caliber shell casing. In fact I have found fish hooks smaller than my thumb nail under almost a foot of sand.

              I also remember several discussions about how the plastic Glocks could not show up on metal detectors at airports being quickly debunked. There is really nothing else but metal that can be used for some firearm components like springs, extractors, and firing pins; all things that easily show up on low end metal detectors.

              1. Well, no, at this point you can make all those things out of plastics, fiber composites, and ceramics, and get a functioning gun.

                It’s just that it won’t last nearly as long as one made of metal.

        2. Those were always a fictional threat, but you could understand why they’d be viewed as part of a threat.

          FIFY, the existence of plastic/fiberglass doesn’t itself constitute a threat.

      2. Because they don’t have a serial number from a licensed firearms manufacturer and the paper trail all the way back to the factory that goes with that.

        illegal undocumented immigrant guns!

    2. Google Philip Luty, and maybe download his book on building a 9mm submachine gun from common hardware-store components. With hand tools.

    3. Biden is a moron as are all gun grabbers. There is literally no way to stop “ghost guns” from being made, and there is no way to take away guns citizens currently have. The Electoral College, which helped Biden the Moron get into office, should be abolished as should the nonsense that guns kill people when without a human theyare as safe as a kitty cat.

      1. Biden knows full well that criminals and the mentally ill will find guns when they need them.

        He is simply placating to the ocean of idiots that do not know any better.

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  2. Why are people shooting ghosts anyway?

    1. Because they don’t want to get slimed.

      1. I ain’t ‘fraid of no “GhostGun” …

    2. Because some peckerhead at the EPA asserted their authority.

      1. It’s true – this man has no dick.

  3. Guess who’s running the feds and making the rules? Not “nationalist conservatives” that reason koch liberaltarians rage about.

  4. “Creating a mess” is the real goal.

  5. A single shot plastic gun is a crappy gun.

    1. Single shot gun is a crappy gun. FIFY.

      1874 Sharps is a possible exception.

      1. That’s not how you Fudd.

    2. There’s a reason the first 3d printed plastic gun was named the Liberator. Like the original Liberator, it was only meant to last long enough to take a good gun off a government goon.

      1. Yeah, don’t win a gunfight with the best, most powerful gun you own nearly as often as you win with the one you brought with you.

    3. A single shot plastic gun is a crappy gun.

      It is also one way to get a not-so-crappy gun, from someone who no longer needs it.

  6. Kevin DeLeon ghost gun video is all kinds of awesome.

  7. No amount of sticking it to the ATF is worth shooting something that looks like a plumbing fixture.

    Can’t they make these things look like Han Solo’s blaster or something?

    1. My Calico carbine looks like one of the old phaser rifles from the original run of Star Trek. Especially when I’m using tracers.

    2. Can’t they make these things look like Han Solo’s blaster or something?

      Might as well 3D print the ammunition for the ATF’s DisneyCorp. branch (DisneyCorp’s ATF branch?) while you’re at it.

    3. “No amount of sticking it to the ATF is worth shooting something that looks like a plumbing fixture.”

      {Laughs in STEN]

      Home Depot is the place to cure homeland DESPOT.

  8. I have enough equipment in my garage to make any gun that I want. I just need a little reverse engineering. A manufacturer may use a stamped part, I’d have to use a machined part. The only reason that I don’t is that I can buy a gun cheaper than I can make it at this time.

    1. Given the stats above, apparently 7% of the time you can find a gun for free just by hanging out around crime scenes!

  9. unformed blocks of metal, and other articles only in a primordial state would not—without more—be considered a ‘partially complete’ frame or receiver.” At some point, by necessity, a component stops short of being a firearm part and escapes regulation.

    Didn’t stop politicians on drug regulation, where basic chemicals and glassware are now subject to government regulation.

    You can be that the government will sooner or later make steel blanks, CNC machines, and 3D printers controlled technology that will require government registration and possibly licensing and tracking. There will be another push for this based on IP grounds.

    Subjecting chemistry or machining to government control will, of course, do little to protect American lives. But it greatly increases compliance costs for small companies, dependence on corporations for costly manufactured products, and strengthen the educational and research monopoly of government-approved institutions. Which is, of course, the point.

    Reason contributes to making this happen by distracting people from important political matters with irrelevant pseudo-libertarian drivel and faux outrage.

    1. Just let China make everything. We can sit around and be fat and dumb and lazy.

      At least that seems like the goal.

    2. A large enough bag of empty beer cans is a 0% AR lower. Much assembly required.

  10. The ATF proposal redefines the frame of the popular Polymer80 kit as the metal piece that home builders are far less likely to be able to make themselves.

    They’ve been very clever that way. It’s no longer an argument about whether a piece of plastic is, or is not, readily transformed into a gun. It’s about the metal piece that home builders aren’t currently making themselves.

    They have seriously overreached to the extent that designating this piece is not consistent with the requirement that it be marked with a serial number that is readily visible in an assembled gun. This piece isn’t visible in current designs, and I’m not sure how you’d redesign it to make it so.

    3D printed guns seem to still be a full go under the proposed regs. They don’t rely on the purchase of any pieces that the ATF calls a frame or receiver.

    1. The danger here is that the definition of a firearm will now include the slide of a handgun, the rails, and the frame as well as include the upper receiver and quite likely the bolt carrier, as it holds the firing pin, of an AR as well as the lower. That means there are four parts in a Polymer80 that would require serialization and three in an AR.

      Of course this applies to FFL licensees not John “3D print garage” Doe. The easy workaround is any online FFL just sets up a sister company that doesn’t have an FFL that only sells parts, 80% paperweights, and not completed “firearms”.

      In fact this is going to massively increase the amount of work the ATF has to do in making determinations on whether a flat piece of metal without holes that gets put in a jig to be bent and drilled for slide rails just like an 80% AK flat does. The hard part will be handgun slides and maybe AR uppers but tech will outpace laws as usual.

  11. I’ve put together a few ARs; not difficult at all, but nonetheless rewarding. Thought about getting a Glock 19 [copy] kit, mostly for the sense of just doing it; however, when you add up the costs of the frame/jig, slide, barrel, and upper and lower parts kits, it is just about as expensive as being a real Glock.

    But still, the reward of “doing it myself” might outweigh that.

  12. I challenge the assertion that criminals make their own ghost guns.
    That are used in crimes.
    It takes work to actually make a gun.
    They are criminals because they do not want to work.
    And why make a gun, when you can steal one out of any parked car or house?

    1. This was brought up before in another thread: what’s the difference between an homemade ghost gun and a gun that cartels or terrorists paid Chinese manufacturers to conveniently forget to stamp with serial numbers? How would anyone know?

      And that’s being exceptionally speculative/collusory; if the ATF handed a bunch of non-serialized weapons to MS-13, how would anybody know?

      1. Why would it make any difference if a gun that was smuggled in had a serial number on it, or not?
        Unless you have a valid end user certificate that identifies manufacturer, point of origin, destination and end user, there’s all kinds of plausible deniability even if a gun has a serial number, not to mention, manufacturers marks.

    2. Of course there is not data to support any claims that criminals use “ghost guns,” but then when has an agenda needed data, as long as it sounds about right [to whomever wants to believe it]?

    3. Heck in Philly, LA, NY, and I’m sure a bunch of other places cops are selling illegal guns.

  13. Materials and other technologies are advancing at a rapid rate like never before and it will stay that way. The government is very good at passing laws that can not be enforced in a free country without taking away most all of the freedoms of the citizens. The government, liberals, and leftists have made large inroads toward that goal. A one hour round trip to a hardware store, and I will have everything I need to make a firearm, which is anything that can fire a cartridge. All of the perceived gun problems are with people who use guns illegally. Law abiding citizens are not the problem. Inanimate hardware is not the problem. People are the problem. Ghost guns are not traceable without identification stamped into the metal of the barrel or some other part that stays as part of the assembly with an identification stamp. No matter how outlawing ghost guns is attempted, there will very soon be technology and materials to circumvent the law. Even with the guns owned now, you can change out the barrel, the firing pin, and the magazine so the forensics will not connect the gun to illegal use.

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