Ghost-gun concerns prompt feds to meet with firearms makers

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Federal firearm regulators will meet with gun industry representatives Friday to discuss weapons that can be made from parts purchased online, a signal the Biden administration may tackle the proliferation of weapons known as ghost guns.

The discussion between officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and firearms manufacturers is expected to focus on a possible expansion of the definition of what counts as a firearm, according to people briefed on the plans. Such a move could subject ghost guns to the same regulations as other firearms.

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"ATF routinely meets with our regulated industry participants to discuss matters of mutual concern," said April Langwell, a spokeswoman for the agency. "One of those meetings is scheduled for this week, and ATF looks forward to continuing this important dialogue."

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents the gun industry, will participate in the meeting as will several firearms manufacturers.

"We have not seen credible evidence and statistics demonstrating that this is a significant issue," said Lawrence Keane, the NSSF's general counsel. "We are happy to have a dialogue with the ATF as we always are on issues that impact industry."

There have been growing calls to regulate ghost guns in the past few months. Separately, Democratic lawmakers and gun control groups have called for new regulations following mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder. Friday's meeting was planned before those massacres.

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On Monday, 18 Democratic state attorneys general sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland urging him to act on ghost guns. Earlier this month, four Democratic senators sent a letter to President Joe Biden, asking him to direct the ATF to "regulate these firearms under the Gun Control Act and ensure that they are subject to a background check."

Biden has this week called on Congress to tighten the nation's gun laws. The Democrat urged lawmakers to pass legislation to expand background checks and ban weapons like the AR-15 style gun used by the Boulder shooter.

He didn't mention ghost guns. But Biden administration officials discussed the topic with gun-control advocates at a February meeting, the White House said.

Homemade ghost guns, which have grown in popularity in recent years, can't be traced in criminal investigations because they lack serial numbers. Law-enforcement officials say they appeal to criminals because all the parts can be purchased online and assembled without a background check. Gun-rights advocates say that such concerns are overblown and that homemade firearms are the province of hobbyists.

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Last September, a man with a ghost gun shot two Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department deputies as they sat in their patrol vehicle. In 2019, a 16-year-old killed two fellow students and wounded three others at Saugus High School in Southern California with a gun built from parts.

Approximately 10,000 ghost guns were recovered by law enforcement in 2019, according to the ATF.

In December, the ATF raided the Nevada headquarters of Polymer80, one the largest makers of kits that allow customers to assemble firearms at home. The probe focuses on Polymer80's "Buy Build Shoot Kit," which includes parts to build a handgun and can be purchased online without a background check. The kit meets the definition of a firearm, ATF investigators determined. No charges have been filed in the case.

The key building block for a ghost gun is a metal or polymer piece that houses the firing mechanism, known as an unfinished receiver. It can be purchased without a background check because the ATF doesn't classify the part as a firearm. Buyers can finish the receiver with a drill press or a computerized metal-cutting machine and then add the remaining pieces to complete the gun.

Friday's meeting with the industry is expected to include a discussion on expanding the definition of a firearm to include these unfinished receivers, according to the people with knowledge of the meeting plans. Fully finished receivers are already considered firearms and must be stamped with serial numbers and purchased like any other type of gun.

The challenge for the ATF will be legally drawing the line between a hunk of metal and a part that counts as a firearm.

The gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety petitioned the ATF in 2019 to expand its definition to include unfinished receivers. When the agency didn't act, Everytown sued it.

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"The increasing numbers of ghost guns being recovered with criminal investigations is clearly one of the fastest-growing threats to public safety," said Eric Tirschwell, managing director at Everytown's legal arm. "This is a problem that ATF can fix."

Ms. Langwell, the ATF spokeswoman, declined to comment on the litigation. In court filings, the ATF said that it sent a draft response to Everytown's petition to the Justice Department for review where it currently sits.

Six states have passed laws in recent years to restrict ghost guns, though enforcement has been difficult. In California, anyone assembling a gun at home is now required to get a serial number for that gun. From July 2018 through January 2020, a total of 3,234 serial numbers were issued, according to the state's attorney general. But the state doesn't have any way of knowing how many people have made guns without applying for a serial number.

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