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Attorney General Bonta Defends ATF Rule to Protect the Public from Untraceable Ghost Guns

OAKLAND — California Attorney General Rob Bonta today joined a coalition of 20 attorneys general in defense of a rule by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) to protect the public from dangerous and untraceable ghost guns. The coalition filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of ATF’s opposition to a motion for a preliminary injunction in Morehouse Enterprises, LLC v. ATF. The lawsuit, filed by a firearms dealer, seeks to block ATF’s commonsense rule that would help law enforcement protect communities from ghost guns, or illegal firearms that lack a serial number. The unserialized weapons allow unlicensed manufacturers and illegal possessors to bypass state laws, including California's requirements on firearm ownership recording and background checks, rendering them largely untraceable by law enforcement. 

“When firearms that do not meet California safety standards are built at home by individuals who have not passed a background check and have not had their guns properly serialized, it leaves law enforcement in the dark and hurts public safety,” said Attorney General Bonta. “There have been more mass shootings in the nation than days in the year in 2022. In California, we know our protective measures work, but we need to see such action nationwide. I am in support of stronger federal efforts to curb the gun violence sweeping our country, which is killing thousands of Americans, including children. We refuse to accept that gun deaths are somehow normal when we know that there are effective strategies to stop them. Our law enforcement partners in California and across the country need support and tools to help seize these dangerous firearms — it is disheartening to see efforts such as this lawsuit seeking to make their jobs harder. My office will continue to use every legal tool available to end this gun violence epidemic and to keep Californians safe.”

The rule helps ensure that buyers in any state pass background checks before purchasing easily assembled weapon-part kits used to build ghost guns or partially complete firearm frames or receivers, and that law enforcement officers can trace self-made guns that are later used in a crime. It also limits gun traffickers’ ability to distribute these dangerous weapons into California. Law enforcement agencies throughout California have expressed their concern for the growing trend of unregistered and untraceable ghost guns. The number of illegal ghost guns seized by law enforcement agencies throughout California has continued to rise drastically year after year. In 2015, California law enforcement agencies seized a total of 26 ghost guns. By 2021, that number has increased to 12,388. 

Untraceable ghost guns have been used in multiple tragedies in California. In March 2022, a shooter who was banned from possessing guns killed his three children, a chaperone, and himself using a ghost gun at a church in Sacramento. In 2019, two Saugus High School students were killed and three were injured by a 16-year-old student using a ghost gun assembled from a kit. In November 2017, five people were killed and eight injured at multiple locations, including an elementary school, in Rancho Tehama Reserve. The shooter used homemade ghost guns and unregistered firearms. In June 2013, a shooter killed five people on and around the Santa Monica College campus using an AR-15-style ghost gun rifle.

Absent federal enforcement, these dangerous weapons have continued to proliferate, including in states that have tried to regulate ghost guns themselves, such as California. The ATF rule helps curb this problem by serving as a vital backstop to existing state efforts to stem the flow of ghost guns. 

The rule regulates ghost guns by clarifying critical definitions in the Gun Control Act. Specifically, the rule makes it clear that weapon parts kits and partially complete frames or receivers — the key building blocks for ghost guns — are “firearms” under the Act if they can be readily converted to function as such or are sold with a compatible jig or template. In making this sensible clarification, the rule helps ensure that these kits and partially complete frames or receivers are subject to the same serialization and background check requirements as conventionally manufactured guns. This helps close a dangerous loophole in firearms regulation that enabled people to evade existing gun laws and get their hands on these dangerous weapons.
 
The brief filed today argues that the rule falls within the Gun Control Act and was designed to fill in the gaps in state-by-state enforcement. The coalition further asserts that the rule complements state laws to regulate weapon parts kits and partially completed receivers.

California continues its efforts to advance laws and policies that save lives and prevent gun deaths. In 2021, California saw a 37% lower gun death rate than the national average. According to the CDC, California’s gun death rate was the 44th lowest in the nation, with 8.5 gun deaths per 100,000 people – compared to 13.7 deaths per 100,000 nationally, 28.6 in Mississippi, 20.7 in Oklahoma, and 14.2 in Texas. California’s gun death rate for children is also lower than other states, and is 58% lower than the national average.

Attorney General Bonta stands with partners to continue preventing gun violence strategically and aggressively by:

Attorney General Bonta joins the attorneys general of the District of Columbia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington, and Wisconsin in filing this amicus brief, which can be viewed here.