Gun safety groups, which had pressured Steven M. Dettelbach, the A.T.F.’s new director, to act more decisively, said the letter represented a major step in addressing the growing problem of ghost guns, which have contributed to increases in violent crime, especially on the West Coast, in recent years.
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“A.T.F. listened to the calls for meaningful enforcement of President Biden’s muscular ghost gun rules to stem the tide of these deadly weapons into our communities,” said John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown. “We applaud the guidance today proving that A.T.F. won’t allow the gun industry to subvert our nation’s laws.”
Yet the move, which the Justice Department described as a clarification of the regulation, is not without risk. Because the rule was created through executive action, rather than a statute validated by Congress, it has given companies confidence that they can keep selling individual gun parts.
Administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss possible litigation, said the new guidance would almost certainly be challenged in federal court on the grounds that it violates the Gun Control Act of 1968, which allows people to build firearms for their personal use without submitting to background checks or applying serial numbers.
The guidance will only serve “to further confuse the industry as to when an unfinished, incomplete item is a ‘frame’ or ‘receiver’ — and thus regulated,” said Larry Keane, a top official with the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a gun industry trade group.
Some liberal-leaning states have passed their own laws to regulate ghost guns after a series of mass shootings involving them. At least 10 states have done so, and a handful of cities, including New York, Washington and Los Angeles, have sued ghost gun manufacturers over attacks carried out using such weapons.
But the gun lobby strongly opposed the new federal rule, and several conservative legal groups have already challenged it.
In August, 17 states and a coalition of gun rights activists sued the Biden administration in federal court in North Dakota. That suit was rejected, but a lawsuit in a federal court in Texas remained unresolved after a judge issued a temporary restraining order against the rule’s implementation.