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Biden picks a former federal prosecutor to lead the ATF as it targets 'ghost guns'

President Biden listens as Steve Dettelbach, nominee for director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, speaks on measures to combat gun crime from the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on April 11, 2022.
Mandel Ngan
AFP via Getty Images
President Biden listens as Steve Dettelbach, nominee for ATF director, speaks on measures to combat gun crime from the Rose Garden of the White House on Monday.

Updated April 11, 2022 at 4:05 PM ET

President Biden on Monday announced the finalization of a federal rule to regulate so-called "ghost guns" more like regular guns, including requiring serial numbers and background checks for the purchase of kits to assemble guns privately.

Kit makers and re-sellers would have to include a serial number on the weapon. The rules would also require background checks for anyone purchasing a kit that can be readily made into a working firearm, including 3-D printing kits — just like the background check law that applies to all licensed gun sales.

The rule would not ban gun kits themselves or strengthen penalties for crimes committed with ghost guns.

Last year, about 20,000 suspected ghost guns were recovered by law enforcement during criminal investigations, according to the ATF, marking a tenfold increase in reported ghost guns compared to 2016.

Biden also introduced his second nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives, former U.S. Attorney Steve Dettelbach.

Dettelbach defended the ATF, saying it has faced unfair public criticism.

"The men and women of the ATF and the public that they protect deserve better support from us," he said.

If confirmed, Dettelbach would be the first permanent director of ATF in seven years. The position often faces pushback from gun rights groups and has only had one Senate-confirmed director in the past 16 years.

"As we emerge from this pandemic, we've got to recognize that many Americans still face fear and isolation – not because of a virus, but because of an epidemic of firearms violence," Dettelbach said. "It's not a new problem, and it has many causes. That's why it's going to take an all hands on deck partnership approach to address that issue, and the ATF will be there."

As part of his unsuccessful run for Ohio attorney general in 2018, Dettelbach pushed to reinstate an assault weapons ban and universal background checks.

Speaking along with Vice President Harris and Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, the president noted that he announced the process to come up with the rule on ghost guns a year ago with political opposition in Congress to taking action on guns.

"The NRA called this rule I'm about to announce extreme. Extreme? Well then let me ask you, is it extreme to protect police officers? Extreme to protect our children? Extreme to keep guns out of the hands of people who couldn't even pass a background check?" Biden said. "Look, the idea that someone on a terrorist list could purchase one of these guns, is extreme? It isn't extreme. It's basic common sense."

President Biden holds up a ghost gun kit during an event about gun violence in the Rose Garden of the White House on April 11, 2022 in Washington.
Drew Angerer / Getty Images
Getty Images
President Biden holds up a ghost gun kit during an event about gun violence in the Rose Garden of the White House on April 11, 2022 in Washington.

Biden showed off a kit sold to assemble a pistol to illustrate the ease of producing a functioning gun. Biden said ATF estimates being able to trace less than 1% of ghost guns.

Biden described other ways in which the Department of Justice is cracking down on illegal guns and efforts his administration is making to support community policing. He also called on Congress to pass universal background checks and again ban assault weapons, as well as high-capacity magazines.

Biden also called on Congress to ban sale and possession of unserialized guns, something the administration is not able to do through its regulation, and eliminating immunity for gun manufacturers.

The president was introduced by Mia Tretta, the survivor of a shooting at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, Calif., who lost two classmates in the shooting and has worked with national gun rights groups as a gun safety activist.

The White House touted Dettelbach's two-decade career as a prosecutor at the Department of Justice, as well as his record of taking on criminal gang activity, domestic extremism and his experience with data-driven strategies to fight community gun violence. Dettelbach served as U.S. attorney for the northern district of Ohio during the Obama administration before resigning in 2016.

Unlike Republicans in the evenly divided Senate, Democrats lack unity on gun policy. The ATF, which plays a key role in gun regulations, hasn't had a permanent director since 2015, and there has been only one since the agency became a Senate-confirmed position in 2006.

It's Biden's second attempt at finding the ATF a permanent director. The White House in September withdrew David Chipman's nomination to lead the agency amid opposition from gun rights advocates, Republican senators and a few Democrats. Chipman, a former ATF agent, has pushed for tough gun regulations as a senior policy adviser for a gun safety group founded by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was the victim of a shooting in 2011.

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Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.
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