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Why doesn’t the ATF consider ghost guns to be firearms?

Federal gun safety laws regulate “firearms,” including frames or receivers that can be converted into an operable firearm. Congress broadly defined “firearm” to include completed, fully operable weapons as well as their core building blocks, frames, and receivers.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) determines when a product qualifies as a firearm. They are responsible for deciding, on a case by-case basis, when a frame or receiver meets the definition of “firearm.” ATF makes these determinations when the sellers of “unfinished” frames and receivers want confirmation that their products will not be regulated by ATF. A business sends a sample frame or receiver to ATF, and ATF provides a determination letter explaining whether or not that frame or receiver qualifies as a firearm. 

ATF has taken the position that an AR-15 lower receiver does not qualify as a firearm as long as one part of the receiver—the trigger cavity— is not milled out. ATF told businesses that these unfinished receivers could be sold without serial numbers and without background checks. ATF made similar determinations about pistol frames. It does not matter if the unfinished frame or receiver could be made into a functioning firearm in less than one hour. Even a convicted felon can purchase an unfinished receiver or frame online because, in ATF’s view, these are essentially unregulated pieces of metal—which also means many sellers are not subject to ATF regulation and oversight.

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