On April 8, President Joe Biden requested that the Department of Justice (DOJ) issue a new rule banning the creation of so-called ghost guns as one of a handful of executive actions meant to curb gun violence following the recent mass shootings in Atlanta, Georgia, and Boulder, Colorado.
Ghost guns are unregistered firearms that weren't assembled by licensed gun manufacturers or sold in highly regulated gun shops, and they're most closely associated with Cody Wilson, the founder of Defense Distributed. Wilson first drew attention as the creator of the Liberator, a functional plastic gun that could be manufactured at home using a 3D printer.
Today, Defense Distributed's signature product is the Ghost Gunner, a do-it-yourself milling machine the size of small printer that enables anyone with enough time and interest to create unregistered firearms simply by purchasing parts online, downloading specs from an online library like Wilson's DEFCAD, and assembling the final product.
Wilson says the units fly off the shelves every time a major politician so much as mentions gun control.
"As soon as Biden says, 'in 30 days you're going to lose your ghost guns,' everyone's like, 'I gotta buy a ghost gun!'" says Wilson.
Wilson is back at the helm of Defense Distributed after stepping away in 2018, following allegations that he paid a 16-year-old for sex after they met on the adult app Sugar Daddy Meet. The legal age of consent in Texas is 17 years old, and Wilson's defense team maintained that he believed her to be an adult. His plea deal required him to pay restitution, perform community service, register as a sex offender, and serve seven years probation that discourages him from purchasing new firearms.
Defense Distributed has been fighting off federal and state legal challenges since its founding in 2012. Biden's requested rule change is the latest front in that legal battle. The president was vague on the details, but he has asked the DOJ to issue a new rule on ghost guns within 30 days.
Wilson anticipates that the proposed regulation will classify more gun parts, such as the unfinished lower receiver that the Ghost Gunner modifies, as firearms that would each require registration numbers branded on them.
That was the rule change proposed by the nonprofit gun control advocacy organization Everytown for Gun Safety, which was founded by former New York City mayor and philanthropist Michael Bloomberg.
Wilson believes the rule change could drive up demand for DIY guns.
"If it's actually more difficult to buy an [AR-15] upper receiver…because it's serialized and now I gotta go through the background check and everything, I'm now going to consider for the first time making an [AR-15] upper receiver," says Wilson.
And while Wilson was a pioneer in the DIY gun space, Defense Distributed is now just one of many players, meaning that regulating ghost guns will be more of a challenge.
"I think the interesting thing with these sorts of laws…is there's this growing gap between what's on paper and what is enforceable in law," says Kareem Shaya, a software engineer and co-founder of Open Source Defense, a gun rights organization mostly made up of engineers and Silicon Valley programmers seeking to distance the debate over the right to armed self-defense from the left-right culture war.
"If you look at the path gun rights have taken over the past five years, really that is the story of gun rights moving from a world of politics to a world of culture," says Shaya. "In 2020, between 7 and 15 percent of the people who are gun owners today in the U.S. became gun owners in 2020, and the fastest-growing segments within that were black people and women."
In the tumultuous year of a pandemic, mass protests, riots, and a contested election, gun sales spiked across America and especially in big cities. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearm industry trade association, says that more than 5 million registered gun sales in the first seven months of 2020 were to first-time buyers.
"The thing we find is as people learn about guns, they tend to be cool with them," says Shaya. "I think arguably YouTube and Twitter and Instagram are the biggest advances for gun rights of the past several decades…arguably more important than any actual gun technology in terms of spreading gun rights."
In the COVID-19 era, the Biden White House is framing gun violence as a public health issue. But Wilson believes the career bureaucrats at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) have long had these regulations ready to go and were just waiting for a president willing to enact them.
"Joe [Biden] was simply able to take advantage of what the [ATF] was already preparing and ready to do and kind of wanted to do for the last four years. So this might feel like a kind of warp drive or acceleration of the problem, but in fact, it's simply the problem of not being able to replace the permanent government bureaucracy that's installed in D.C.," says Wilson.
Biden is also proposing to ban pistol braces, appoint a gun control lobbyist to head the ATF, and push for more "red flag" laws that would allow police to confiscate someone's firearms if they determine that he "presents an imminent risk" to himself or others.
But Wilson says he isn't particularly worried about the effect that these rules will have on his business or on gun rights in America.
Produced by Zach Weissmueller. B-roll shot by Mark McDaniel and Qinling Li. Additional graphics by Lex Villena.
Photo credits: Jay Janner/TNS/Newscom; Sarah Reingewirtz/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Ted Soqui/Sipa USA/Newscom; Yuri Gripas/POOL via CNP/InStar/Cover Images/Newscom; CNP/AdMedia/Newscom; Jason Bergman/Sipa USA/Newscom