Besieged by Gun Violence, Cities Say Feds Turned a Blind Eye on DIY Kits

Chicago and other cities included this diagram in a federal complaint filed Wednesday, Aug. 26, against the ATF in Manhattan. (Courthouse News image)

MANHATTAN (CN) — As authorities increasingly recover untraceable “ghost guns” from crime scenes, Chicago and three other U.S. cities took aim in a federal complaint Wednesday at the government’s failure to crack down on build-it-yourself kits.

Like a child’s toy set, so-called “ghost guns” are partially assembled firearms that come in separate parts, sometimes even with tools and instructions on how to put them together.

Unlike legally sold and regulated firearms, the “ghost guns” lack serial numbers or any other identifying markings, which means they cannot be traced to their point of origin if they turn up at crime scenes. 

Faced with rising gun violence, Chicago is joined in the complaint by the cities of Syracuse, New York; San Jose, California; and Columbia, South Carolina. 

The cities note that federal law defines regulated firearms as including both operable weapons and their core building blocks — frames for pistols, and receivers for long guns — so long as those core building blocks are designed to be or may be readily converted into operable weapons.  

According to the complaint, however, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives has given the green light to the unregulated sale of unfinished gun frames and rifle assemblies without barrels or triggers via a series of rules and letter determinations that contravene the regulatory framework of the Gun Control Act.

While other districts have sued ghost gun manufacturers, this complaint in the Southern District of New York is the first of its kind filed against the ATF.

The plaintiff cities are joined in the suit by Everytown For Gun Safety, a gun-law reform group whose attorney Len Kamdang serves as lead local counsel for Wednesday’s suit. 

“ATF has refused to apply and enforce the clear terms of this federal law, opting instead to give online sellers the green-light and leaving these core components completely unregulated,” the complaint states. 

According to the complaint, the bureau issued an interpretive rule in 2015 that changed its policy so that a gun frame or “receiver” cannot be a firearm if it lacks drilling or machining and is “solid” in certain areas, as unfinished frames and receivers are.

Manufacturers and online sellers of pistol frames and rifle-receiver parts use the ATF’s 2015 rule and subsequent letters to defend the legality of selling the firearm parts and do-it-yourself assembly kits. 

Some kits include plastic jigs fits around the frame with marking exactly where the frame needs to be drilled and filed by consumers to build it out to be a fully functional gun; in some cases, the kits also include the drilling bits. 

According to the complaint, the top-five instructional videos posted on YouTube that give guidance on finishing a frame or receiver have been viewed over 3 million times. 

“The finished product is a precision machined functional lower receiver with no serial number,” one San Bernardino-based vendor boasts of the untraceable guns, the complaint points out. “If they don’t know you have it, they can’t take it.” 

Chicago and other cities included this diagram in a federal complaint filed Wednesday, Aug. 26, against the ATF in Manhattan. (Courthouse News image)

The proliferation of the unregulated firearms since the ATF’s rule change in 2015 coincides with dramatic increases in the numbers of recoveries of ghost guns in recent years, often used by individuals who would otherwise be prohibited from legally obtaining or possessing a firearm.  

According the complaint, a review of more than 100 federal prosecutions from 2010 to April 2020 involving ghost guns — representing over 2,500 ghost guns connected to criminal activity — found that the defendants in nearly half of the prosecutions were prohibited from possessing any firearm and would not have passed a background check if one were required. 

The plaintiffs seek a judgment declaring the ATF’s rule change unlawful and set aside, along with an order enjoining the agency from applying a definition of “firearm” to partially assembled guns that is contrary to that required by the Gun Control Act, “including any definition that permits unfinished frames and receivers from being treated as firearms if they are designed to be or readily can be converted to operable weapons.” 

ATF Acting Director Regina Lombardo is a co-defendant to the suit as are Attorney General William Barr and the Department of Justice. 

In June, the attorney general of Washington, D.C., sued Polymer80 for advertising and selling illegal guns to district consumers. The civil lawsuit, filed in D.C. Superior Court, alleged the Nevada-based company violates D.C. law by falsely representing that its weapons are legal in the District and by selling illegal firearms.

According to the D.C. complaint, Polymer80 manufactured over 80% of the 250 ghost guns recovered by D.C. Metropolitan police from 2017 through May 2020. 

According to Polymer80’s FAQ, the company has a “strict policy” against selling their firearm assemblies to convicted felons. 

A spokesperson for the ATF declined to comment on the pending litigation Wednesday afternoon.  

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