In the United States, ghost guns — untraceable rifles without serial numbers that are manufactured from components purchased online — are increasingly becoming the lethal weapon of choice for persons who are legally forbidden from purchasing or possessing firearms in their home states.
It has long been the practice of the criminal underworld to use stolen guns and then sand off serial numbers, but ghost guns represent a digital-age update, and they are particularly widespread in coastal blue states with tough firearms restrictions.
Nobody knows this better than law enforcement officers in California, where the spread of these drugs has reached epidemic proportions, according to officials in Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego, and San Francisco.
According to the officials, ghost guns accounted for 25 to 50 percent of all firearms found at crime scenes in the past 18 months.
The great majority of suspects who were apprehended with firearms were forbidden from possessing them by law.
Ghost weapons, as well as the specialist sector that manufactures them, have thrived as a result of a regulatory gap in federal law:
The parts used to construct "privately produced firearms" are categorized as components rather than actual firearms, which means that internet customers are not required to submit to background checks or register the weapons they purchase.
As a result, they serve as a tremendous magnet for persons who are prohibited from possessing firearms, such as convicted felons, domestic abusers subject to protective orders, and the mentally ill.
It is the closing of that loophole that is the focus of new restrictions authorized by President Biden, the most visible surviving pillar of his campaign to address gun violence.
The guidelines would basically handle ghost guns in the same way that regular firearms are treated, requiring serial numbers to be engraved on core components, demanding background checks, and requiring internet consumers to pick up their orders from federally registered firearms retailers.
Law enforcement officials in California believe that the new laws will go a long way toward keeping ghost weapons out of the hands of criminals and juveniles in the state.
Gun rights organizations are anticipated to challenge the new laws in court following a lengthy public comment process.
Law enforcement authorities also believe that, even though the restrictions would create a slew of legal barriers, the extralegal pipeline for components will adapt and prosper regardless of the rules.
There is an enormous surplus of materials in circulation, enough to supply dealers who sell pre-assembled firearms on social media platforms or the dark web for years to come, according to experts.
A parallel development has occurred with the rising availability of 3-D printers, which can fabricate the plastic and metal components of guns, providing an alternative source of illicit weapons for organized crime and drug traffickers who would otherwise have to steal them.
The battle over gun control in Washington has raged for decades, and the most recent iteration focuses on the regulation of traditional guns.
Ghost firearms raise a more fundamental question: what are they? What distinguishes a gun from a non-gun?
According to federal law, any frame or receiver that is regarded 80 percent finished is considered a functional firearm and is subject to the same rules as a fully constructed handgun.
If the roject is less than 80 percent completed, it is not subject to the same federal safeguards as the rest of the project.
In spite of this, a well-versed amateur may complete the simple changes required to transform it into a functional handgun in less than an hour.
The ATF has been accused of failing to aggressively investigate companies that offer kits containing everything needed to swiftly manufacture a ghost gun, despite the fact that it is hampered and constrained by the gun lobby, say critics.
As David Chipman, a former A.T.F. agent who was withdrawn as Vice President Biden's nomination to lead the bureau in September amid heated opposition from the gun lobby, put it, "I believe a lot of us thought this was an issue that we had 10 years to deal with, when in reality, it was more like two."
After promising to make the issue a priority, Mr. Chipman was denied confirmation, leaving gun control supporters to question how aggressively the agency will enforce the new laws.
Nonetheless, the A.T.F. has collaborated with local police agencies on dozens of ghost-gun busts, and it has recently taken action against Polymer80, a Nevada-based industry leader whose weapons accounted for the majority of ghost guns discovered at California crime scenes in 2019.
The company offers a diverse selection of components for purchase on the internet, including kits for the construction of AR-15-style semiautomatic rifles.
ATF concentrated on one of its most popular products, a $590 "Buy, Build, and Shoot" kit that included practically everything needed to assemble a working Glock-style pistol in a short amount of time.
It was in December of last year that the ATF raided the business's offices near Reno, Nevada, claiming that the corporation had failed to submit the kits for regulatory approval.
One of the documents submitted with the search warrant application was an affidavit from an informant who claimed to have put together one of the company's kits in 21 minutes.
Officials with the Biden administration believe that the new ghost gun regulations will put an end to the sale of similar kits, at least in the legal sense.
The National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, have both sharply criticized the rules, but neither has launched a significant campaign to overturn them. Larry Keane, a senior official with the National Security and Strategic Forces, expressed "significant concerns" that the regulations would impede "legitimate business activities," and said he would not rule out taking legal action in the future.
Lawyers for the Justice Department are more concerned that more hard-line groups will challenge the rules in federal court, arguing that only Congress, not the A.T.F., has the authority to change the definition of a firearm.
If the courts follow this line of reasoning, ghost gun enforcement by the ATF will be near impossible to implement.