AG Racine Leads 19-State Coalition Arguing ATF Has Failed to Regulate Ghost Guns

Attorneys General Contend That Proliferation of Untraceable Firearms Endanger Residents and Impede Criminal Investigations and Prosecutions

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Attorney General Karl A. Racine today announced he led a coalition of 19 Attorneys General urging the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York to compel the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to properly regulate untraceable partially-assembled “ghost guns.” In an amicus brief filed in Syracuse v. ATF, the coalition asserts that the ATF must correct its unlawful 2015 interpretation of the Gun Control Act (GCA). The Attorneys General argue that ATF’s improper reading of the GCA effectively gave the green light for unlicensed online retailers to sell nearly-complete firearms that can easily be converted into fully-functioning weapons. They further argue that these ghost guns endanger residents of amici states and impede law enforcement’s ability to investigate and prosecute criminal activity.

“In the absence of federal regulation, the unlawful sale of unmarked and untraceable ghost guns has proliferated nationwide, endangering District residents and preventing law enforcement from investigating and prosecuting violent crimes,” said AG Racine. “Indeed, these dangerous firearms have been used in several homicides in the District. That’s why our coalition of state Attorneys General is asking the Court to order ATF to correctly interpret the Gun Control Act to apply to ghost guns as illegal firearms under federal law.”

From the 1980s through the early 2000s, ATF classified the core components of handguns and rifles—frames and receivers—as “firearms” subject to federal regulation if the components could be quickly and easily converted into functioning guns. In 2015, the ATF reversed course. Without offering any explanation for changing its position, ATF issued an interpretive rule stating that these rifle receivers and handgun frames were not considered firearms. As a result of this unlawful misinterpretation, an industry has emerged in which unlicensed online retailers sell nearly-complete guns directly to consumers. These weapons, sometimes called ghost guns because they lack serial numbers and identifying marks, are untraceable and sold without background checks.  

On August 26, 2020, Everytown for Gun Safety and four municipalities filed a suit against the ATF and the U.S. Department of Justice alleging that those agencies unlawfully concluded that ghost guns are not “firearms” under the GCA. In an amicus brief supporting the plaintiffs, the multistate coalition urges the court to force ATF to properly regulate ghost guns because:

  •  Ghost guns are prohibited by federal law: The GCA requires “firearms” to include serial numbers and purchasers of those weapons to pass a background check, among other requirements. Specifically, the statute defines “firearm” as “any weapon which will or is designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projective by the action of an explosive” or “the frame or receiver of any such weapon.” This clearly describes the nearly-assembled guns these companies are selling, which are also sold without background checks and not marked with serial numbers.
  • Untraceable weapons threaten public safety: ATF’s unexplained interpretation emboldened the ghost gun industry and allowed it to rapidly expand across the country. Ghost guns were virtually absent from many jurisdictions prior to the adoption of the new interpretation. Now, according to a recent report, there are 80 online sellers of partially unfinished frames and receivers, and the increase in ghost gun sales is readily apparent on the local level. In the District, prior to 2017, the Metropolitan Police Department had never recovered a ghost gun. In 2017, MPD recovered three such weapons. In 2018, that number rose to 25, and then nearly quintupled to 116 in 2019. Three of the ghost guns recovered in 2019 were involved in murders. That trend has continued this year, and from January 1 to of May 29, 2020, MPD recovered 106 ghost guns.
  • Ghost gun dealers are using the ATF’s rule to mislead consumers: Companies that sell ghost guns have pointed to the ATF’s rule to claim their products are legal, disregarding numerous state laws that specifically ban the sale of these firearms.

A copy of the brief is available at:

Today’s brief was led by AG Racine and joined by the attorneys general of Connecticut, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin. 

Supporting Reasonable Gun Safety Regulations
AG Racine has led multistate coalitions supporting CaliforniaNew Jersey, and Vermont’s ban on large-capacity magazines that can save lives. In 2020, AG Racine also joined a multistate “ghost gun” lawsuit to prevent the federal government from making it easier to acquire 3D-printed firearms online and separately sued gun manufacturer Polymer80 for illegally advertising and selling untraceable ghost guns to D.C. consumers.