Joe Biden has announced an attempt to crack down on “ghost guns”, kits which can be bought without a background check, from which a working gun can quickly be made, and which have been used in an escalating number of shootings.
Biden and Lisa Monaco, the deputy attorney general, were also due on Monday to announce the nomination of Steve Dettelbach, US attorney in Ohio from 2009 to 2016, to lead the ATF.
Ghost guns are an increasing problem for US law enforcement. The critical component in building an untraceable gun is the lower receiver, a part typically made of metal or polymer. An unfinished receiver – sometimes referred to as an “80% receiver” – can be legally bought online with no serial numbers or other markings and no license required.
On Monday, the administration also released an executive action to regulate “split receiver” firearms with serial numbers and background checks and to require gun sellers to maintain sales records more than 20 years old.
Last month, David Pucino, deputy chief counsel of the Giffords Law Center, told the Guardian the proliferation of ghost guns was “horrifying but not surprising”.
He added: “Ghost gun companies have been resistant to any regulations and it’s clear that they see their business model existing because of the legal loopholes they can exploit. They don’t want to compete with the gun manufacturers that have to follow regulations.
“[States and local governments] are using the tools at their disposal but the federal government needs to step in. The longer ATF delays, more ghost guns will be available and they will be used in more shootings.”
On Monday, the White House said its new rule clarifies “buy build shoot” kits as firearms under the Gun Control Act, meaning serial numbers must be included, sellers must be licensed and background checks carried out on purchases.
The Department of Justice will also aim to “turn some ghost guns already in circulation into serialised firearms” by requiring the addition of serial numbers in any re-sale.
Regarding enforcement, the White House quoted Biden’s remarks at New York police headquarters in February: “Not only are state and local prosecutors going to come after you, but expect federal charges and federal prosecution too.”
On Sunday, the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, said the Biden administration needed to move faster.
“It’s high time for a ghost gun exorcism before the proliferation peaks, and before more people get hurt – or worse,” the Democrat said, adding that such weapons are “too easy to build, too hard to trace and too dangerous to ignore”.
Dettelbach is however likely to face a battle in a Senate confirmation presided over by Schumer. Biden had to withdraw his first ATF nominee, the gun-control advocate David Chipman, amid opposition from Republicans and some Democrats.
Republican and Democratic presidents have failed to have ATF picks confirmed. Since 2006 only one, B Todd Jones, has made it, in 2013 after a six-month struggle.
On Monday, the White House said: “Congress needs to do its job by passing … essential legislation to reduce gun crime, including legislation to require background checks for all gun sales, ensure that no terrorist can buy a weapon in the United States, ban the sale and possession of unserialized firearms – ghost guns, ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and repeal gun manufacturers’ protection from liability.”