New Ghost Gun Laws and ATF Nominee Bring Hope Amid Slow Progress on Gun Violence Prevention

Sophie Mackin, Assistant Forum Editor

When President Biden took office, I was excited to see what would come of his campaign promises regarding gun violence prevention, specifically his goals of banning assault weapons and expanding background checks. However, up until this week, Biden has not been able to facilitate much progress on these issues at all, aside from administering some executive actions and increasing funding for local community violence intervention during the beginning of his presidency.

In light of the recent shootings in Sacramento last week and in Brooklyn yesterday, I’ve been feeling frustrated about how little has changed in terms of gun legislation over the past year and a half, despite having a Democratic president, a Democratic House and a 50-50 Senate. Gun violence is an epidemic in this country, and gun-related tragedies are so frequent that they often either don’t get reported in mainstream media or receive limited attention in a given news cycle.

I understand that the U.S. government has a wide variety of urgent crises to focus on these days, from the war in Ukraine to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but gun violence is also an urgent crisis. As Democratic Senator Chris Murphy said, “The administration can act with some urgency here… I know the administration is focused on Ukraine, but there are, you know, 100 people dying every day here in this country and we need both Congress and the administration to be acting with urgency.”

The 2022 midterm elections are right around the corner, and Democrats may lose seats in Congress, which has made me especially anxious to see the passage of gun violence prevention legislation before the political environment becomes even more challenging. With the current makeup of Congress, major gun reforms will likely require changes to the filibuster rules, for which Biden finally indicated his support.

As a result of this debilitating polarization in Congress, Biden was forced to withdraw his original nominee, David Chipman, to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) back in September of 2021 due to opposition from Senate Republicans as well as some Democrats. Chipman is a senior policy adviser at Giffords, a gun violence prevention organization named for Gabrielle Giffords, and would have been a great leader to have in that role. Biden’s nomination withdrawal was a huge disappointment and indicative of how powerful the gun lobby is in Congress.

However, after all this lack of progress and months without a new ATF director to fill the vacancy, on Monday, April 11, Biden finally announced a new nominee as well as a plan to regulate ghost guns. Though not necessarily groundbreaking, this announcement sparked a little hope for me and showed, at least to some extent, that Biden’s words weren’t empty when he promised to not only mourn but also take action following the Sacramento shooting last week.

During his White House address on Monday, Biden nominated former federal attorney Steve Dettelbach to lead the ATF. Deemed less controversial than Chipman, Dettelbach served as a prosecutor at the Department of Justice for two decades and as a U.S. attorney for the northern district of Ohio during the Obama administration. In addition to naming Dettelbach, Biden also announced a new rule targeting “ghost guns,” which can be made with 3D printers or sold online as kits to be assembled.

The new rule requires that all commercial manufacturers of ghost gun assembly kits include serial numbers and that all commercial sellers are federally licensed, keep purchase records and run background checks. Up until now, it has been very difficult to trace ghost guns, so the data on how widespread they are is limited. Between 2016 and 2021, the ATF received 45,000 reports of ghost guns and could only trace 1% of them due to the lack of serial numbers. As President of Everytown for Gun Safety John Feinblatt explained, “Ghost guns look like a gun, they shoot like a gun, and they kill like a gun, but up until now they haven’t been regulated like a gun.”

There is so much more to be done, and I’m sure that these two critical steps toward gun violence prevention will be subject to conservative backlash in the coming days. However, I’m hoping that this week marks new momentum for gun violence prevention efforts and reinvigorates activists who have been met with primarily disappointment and frustration to continue fighting.