Federal gun control agency says firearms dealers must obey the law

Today, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives issued a public safety advisory to the firearms industry and the public regarding the application of Final Rule 2021-05F, Definition of “Frame or Receiver” and Identification of Firearms.

The advisory highlights the public safety threats addressed by the final rule and makes clear that ATF will continue to prioritize investigations involving willful efforts to violate the provisions of the Gun Control Act, as implemented in the final rule, regulating the manufacture and sale of firearm frames and receivers.

“People who engage in the business of dealing firearms are subject to the Gun Control Act,” said ATF Director Steven Dettelbach. “That means they need to run background checks and sell guns with serial numbers. That is what the ghost gun rule is about. Today’s advisory is simple. If you’re dealing firearms — including items that can be readily converted to a working firearm — ATF is going to make sure that you are following the same laws as everyone else.”

As technologies like 3D printing advance from hobbyist levels to professional-grade manufacturing, some have suggested that determining when a firearm is created can be increasingly difficult. The ATF is essentially saying that is not the case.

ATF warned against trying to skirt the rule, writing that anyone engaged in the business of manufacturing, importing, or dealing firearm components should not take any steps to avoid licensing, serialization, recordkeeping or otherwise trying to get around the legal requirements established by law.

In April 2022, the Department of Justice announced the “Frame or Receiver” final rule that modernizes the definition of a firearm.

The final rule, which went into effect in August 2022, clarifies that when a partially complete frame or receiver, including one in a parts kit, is “readily” convertible to a firearm they are subject to the same regulations as a firearm made by a federal firearms licensed manufacturer.

Therefore, those who are engaged in selling these items and kits must be licensed to sell firearms pursuant to the GCA and comply with all of the GCA’s requirements, including serialization and running background checks. 

In determining whether a partially complete frame or receiver, whether sold individually or in a kit, is a firearm, ATF will consider all items made available by the seller, including marketing materials, applying the factors described in the final rule’s regulatory text.

Some suppliers of partially complete frames or receivers appear to be attempting to willfully circumvent the rule by (1) selling parts from the type of firearms parts kit covered by the final rule in separate transactions or (2) coordinating with other distributors to sell, market or make available individual parts that, when put together, create a frame or receiver. 

“There is nothing unconstitutional about President Joe Biden’s regulation of ghost guns, and the ATF’s recent letter shows that the administration is serious about enforcement,” said gun safety advocate Lisa McCormick. “Privately-made ghost guns are firearms without serial numbers, that law enforcement officials are increasingly recovering from crime scenes in cities across the country.”

“Last year alone, there were approximately 20,000 suspected ghost guns reported to ATF as having been recovered by law enforcement in criminal investigations – a ten-fold increase from 2016,” said McCormick. “Because ghost guns lack the serial numbers marked on other firearms, police have a difficult time tracing these weapons back to an individual buyer when they are found at a crime scene.”

“This rule puts ‘buy build shoot’ kits that people can buy without a background check and can readily assemble into a working firearm in as little as 30 minutes in the same category as assembled firearms under the Gun Control Act,” said McCormick, who applauded the commonsense interpretation of the rule. “Merchants who sell these kits must be federally licensed and run background checks prior to a sale, just like gun dealers have to do with commercially made firearms.”

When considering whether an individual or entity selling partially complete frames or receivers is engaged in activities that require a federal firearms license, ATF will consider the seller’s marketing conduct and materials.

The final rule ensures that firearms with split receivers are subject to regulations requiring serial numbers and background checks when purchased from a licensed dealer, manufacturer or importer.

The final rule also requires federally licensed firearms dealers to retain key records until they shut down their business or licensed activity, when they must transfer those records to ATF.

This may include the seller providing information on how a partially complete frame or receiver may readily be converted to a firearm, serving essentially as instructions or a guide. It may also include internet links to templates, jigs, molds, equipment, tools or other materials that enable ready completion or assembly of the unfinished frame or receiver into a firearm.

This is because such materials may affect how “readily” the part may be converted. When a supplier in such a circumstance fails to comply with the GCA’s requirements, that may constitute a willful violation of the GCA. ATF considers such conduct, and all willful violations of the GCA, an investigative priority.  

ATF recognizes that most suppliers and the public follow the GCA and its implementing regulations, including the “Frame or Receiver” final rule.

The ATF advisory was intended to assist the firearms industry and public by providing additional information regarding the agency’s investigative priorities.

In February 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice launched a National Ghost Gun Enforcement Initiative, which is training a cadre of prosecutors and disseminating investigation and prosecution tools to help bring cases against those who use ghost guns to commit crimes.

Anyone who observes suspected violations of the GCA or ATF’s implementing regulations may report them to ATF at https://www.atf.gov/atf-tips.

ATF regulates the firearm industry and is the lead federal law enforcement agency with jurisdiction involving firearms and violent crimes. More information about ATF and its programs is available at www.atf.gov.

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