President Joe Biden on Thursday will announce his first raft of executive actions to curb gun violence, including plans to stop the spread of homemade, untraceable firearms known as ghost guns and to tap a prominent gun safety advocate to head the federal agency that regulates the firearm industry, according to senior administration officials.
One of the executive actions will give the Justice Department 30 days to publish its proposal to halt the proliferation of ghost guns, which have become increasingly popular among criminals looking to bypass gun laws, according to gun safety activists and law enforcement officials. It would be the first step toward codifying gun control regulations under executive action, senior administration officials said in a Wednesday evening news briefing.
Biden will also direct the Justice Department to issue a comprehensive report on firearm trafficking for the first time since 2000, the White House officials said. Biden will nominate David Chipman to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), which monitors illegal firearms. Chipman previously served 25 years as a special agent for the ATF and is currently a senior policy advisor with the gun-safety advocacy group Giffords. His confirmation is subject to Senate approval.
The announcements mark a victory for gun safety advocates who have been pushing the White House for action on gun control for months. They come weeks after two shooting sprees in Atlanta, Ga. and Boulder, Colo. left a total of 18 people dead. In the wake of the massacres, which occurred less than a week apart, Biden faced intensifying pressure from activists and members of his own party to act on gun control.
“This is evidence that elections are important and elections work,” says Brian Lemek, executive director of BradyPac, the political arm of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “Joe Biden is coming through on his campaign promises.”
Lemek and other advocates lauded the upcoming action on ghost guns in particular. While it’s unclear exactly what the Justice Department will propose, advocates have been pushing for their regulation for years. Because they can be made with a 3D printer or assembled at home in as little as 15 minutes using unregulated kits, ghost guns don’t have serial numbers and circumvent federal and state gun laws. In late March, 18 states sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking him to close the ghost gun loophole, which would effectively allow ghost guns to be regulated like other firearms.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that the call from survivors of gun violence, from advocates of gun violence, on this President to prioritize gun reform helped push the Administration to make progress on this issue,” says activist Igor Volsky of Guns Down America. “A lot of people around the country are going to be thankful for the President’s leadership.”
Volsky says ghost guns have become the “favored instrument” of criminals, and that stopping their spread was one of the top priorities of gun safety groups. “It’s significant because it’s a growing problem and crisis,” Volsky says.
Because ghost guns are untraceable by law enforcement, there are no comprehensive statistics on how many are made or used across the nation. But activists have long been warning about the threats they pose. Nearly 2,500 ghost guns have been connected to criminal activity in 102 federal cases over the past decade, according to the gun violence prevention group Everytown for Gun Safety. In California, 30% of guns recovered by the ATF have no serial number, Everytown says. On Nov. 14, 2019, a teen who killed two students and himself during a mass shooting at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, Calif. was armed with a ghost gun, authorities say.
Administration officials emphasized that Thursday’s anticipated actions are only the start of Biden’s action on gun control. But the route to progress on background checks—a key priority of gun violence prevention advocates—still goes through Congress, and it’s unlikely anything will happen right away. The Democratic-led House has passed two bills expanding background checks, but they are now languishing in the Senate where they lack the requisite 60 votes to get to Biden’s desk for signing.
Without effective intervention, police and gun violence experts warn that large-scale mass shootings—in addition to the gun violence that has plagued U.S. cities through the pandemic—are inevitable as the weather warms and more people get vaccinated, enabling large gatherings in public spaces. Some worry the mass attacks could return at a higher frequency, given the record legal gun sales in 2020.
About 22.8 million firearms were sold in 2020, compared with 13.9 million the previous year, according to estimates by the Small Arms Analytics & Forecasting, an independent research firm. In 2020, the FBI conducted more than 39.6 million background checks, data from the agency shows — more firearm background checks than any year on record. More than 8.4 million people in the U.S. became first-time gun owners last year, the National Shooting Sports Foundation says, adding that record sales have sparked ammunition shortages across the country.
Despite a pandemic that kept much of the U.S. at home, 2020 was one of the nation’s most violent years in decades. Homicides soared in many major cities. And more than 19,000 people were fatally shot in 2020—the highest death toll in more than 20 years, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that tracks gun violence incidents. The nonprofit says there were more than 600 incidents in which four or more people were shot in 2020, nearly 50% more than the year before.