When President Joe Biden announced a new rule to regulate ghost guns in April, he said he hoped to reduce crime and make it harder for violent people to access untraceable weapons. Ghost guns are firearms without serial numbers or registrations that people can generally buy without a background check. They come in kits that are about 80% complete, which skirts most legal restrictions on gun sales, and the customer assembles the parts into a finished weapon.
“A felon, a terrorist, a domestic abuser can go from a gun kit to a gun in as little as 30 minutes,” Biden said when he announced the rule. More than 20,000 ghost guns were reported to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives after being recovered in criminal investigations last year, according to a White House fact sheet.
The ATF said it would begin to identify certain gun parts, specifically frames and receivers, as meeting the definition of a firearm, thereby subjecting them to federal regulations such as background checks and registration.
But most ghost gun enthusiasts saw the new rule — the first of its kind for do-it-yourself kits — as either a total joke or an assault on their freedoms.
HuffPost has found that far-right ghost gun enthusiasts are boldly threatening law enforcement more than previously seen on mainstream platforms, brandishing logos and designs of known anti-government groups such as the Boogaloo Bois and sharing tips on how to evade the new regulations. Technology has also emerged that offers novel ways for gun parts to be constructed while avoiding ATF regulations.
Everytown for Gun Safety, an organization focused on preventing gun violence, has described ghost guns as “the fastest growing gun safety problem in the country,” and they’ve been a weapon of choice on the far right primarily because they aren’t registered or traced. In an investigation last December, HuffPost identified groups 3D-printing gun parts and outlined how these groups avoid detection: anonymizing their online presence when sharing prints, tips and points, using cryptocurrency to avoid trails on purchases, and displaying overtly anti-government sentiment on social media and in chat rooms.
As threats against federal law enforcement mount, experts on political violence question whether the government will be able to effectively respond and slow the tide of untraceable guns.
In September, the ATF released an open letter to “further assist the firearms industry and the public” in understanding how the agency interprets gun parts. The letter describes, with photos, which parts are and aren’t considered firearms. But it didn’t clear up confusion over how the rule would be implemented, and it did nothing to curb the proliferation of illegal firearms or parts, according to experts.
“I think most of the ghost gun manufacturers and actors who are in these spaces have a good process in place to ensure they’re just on the right side of the law,” Jonathan Lewis, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, told HuffPost.
HuffPost has reviewed newsletters and articles from fringe groups doing exactly that, and found that the ability to evade regulation is a matter of pride for the ghost gun community.
“ATF was nice enough to include some helpful visual examples,” reads one such newsletter, which goes on to map out exactly how to purchase and sell kits to avoid law enforcement oversight. “If you think this isn’t very clear, you aren’t alone. The new ATF rules made sense to no one because (as usual) the ATF did a poor job of making the regulations plainly understandable.”
President Joe Biden interacts with a ghost gun during an event on gun violence held in the Rose Garden at the White House on April 11.
One prominent figure in the ghost gun world even sees the new regulations as a potential boon to his business.
Cody Wilson, who in 2013 became the first person to 3D-print a ghost gun, is selling a new machine called the Ghost Gunner. He is marketing it as “zero percent,” seemingly a play on the 80% completion threshold that determines whether a gun is a personal firearm and therefore subject to ATF regulations.
The machine, which turns aluminum blocks into gun parts, sidesteps ATF regulation altogether because the bureau specifically monitors only gun parts and 3D-printing plans.
“People are gonna make guns,” Wilson told one site that HuffPost reviewed. “They’re gonna choose gun privacy. They’re gonna choose ways to acquire weapons outside of government oversight.”
The ATF did not directly respond to HuffPost’s questions about Wilson’s parts-printing machine. Instead, the agency said that it “constantly monitors trends and technological changes in the firearms industry to ensure compliance with federal laws and regulations.” An ATF spokesperson added that anyone can submit a new product to ATF’s Firearms and Ammunition Technology Division for testing and classification, but “any firearm ― whether submitted to ATF for evaluation or not ― is subject to regulation.”
Ghost guns seized in federal law enforcement actions are displayed at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives field office in Glendale, California, on April 18.
The Ghost Gunner comes after years of Wilson facing hurdles to selling his 3D prints and parts. One of the biggest online payment processing companies, Stripe, caught on and blocked his transactions. And attorneys general across the U.S. have taken legal action to try to keep Defense Distributed ― a major ghost gun seller that Wilson co-founded ― from publishing 3D files for download. (There was also a period where Wilson completely went into hiding after being arrested in 2018 over allegations of child sexual assault. He was released in 2019 after pleading guilty to injuring a minor, registering as a sex offender in Texas, and receiving seven years of probation, which he is still observing.)
For a while, Wilson operated under aliases (like “Dominica Yowls,” an anagram of “Cody Wilson MIA”) and used fake photos to represent himself online, but he’s slowly making a comeback in the ghost gun community with his constant — and welcome — innovation.
Ghost gun enthusiasts claim that Wilson has struggled to ship his machine because he was denied a merchant account with FedEx, which has been under pressure to halt shipments containing firearm parts. FedEx wouldn’t say whether Wilson had been denied an account, but the company said it updated its policies after the Biden administration’s regulation went into effect to prevent the carrier from transporting gun parts.
“The FedEx Service Guide prohibits unserialized frames and receivers or other items that may be completed, assembled, restored, or otherwise converted to function as a firearm frame or receiver per federal regulation,” spokesperson Maury Donahue told HuffPost.
Wilson is still selling the Ghost Gunner.
Sue The Government, Win A Gun
Some groups are pursuing legitimate legal pathways to fight the new regulation — and winning.
In October, federal District Court Judge Reed O’Connor issued a preliminary injunction against the application of the regulation, which had been found to have provisions that “unlawfully expand ATF’s authority beyond the boundaries set by” the federal law that allows for firearms regulations.
The plaintiff is the Firearms Policy Coalition, a pro-Second Amendment institute and one of the most prominent organizations within the ghost gun community to fight the ATF regulations.
FPC is the legislative arm of a broad movement to push back against the federal government. And because FPC is classified as a 501(c)(4) ― a tax-exempt advocacy or social welfare group ― the organization doesn’t have to disclose donor information, spending, payments or other operational costs.
But FPC’s ties to extremist groups are still clear. It sells merchandise that calls for abolishing the ATF and incorporates far-right imagery, such as the “Don’t Tread On Me” snake, a symbol seen at the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Other merch available from FPC features the Boogaloo Hawaiian design. Some Boogaloo Bois are responsible for the killings of law enforcement using ghost guns, and the group both predicts and welcomes a second civil war in the United States and political violence that results in the overthrow of the current government. FPC’s description of the shirt says: “For when you subtly want to let people know you’re about that luau life.” Early this month, two suspected members of the Boogaloo Bois were arrested in Michigan and Ohio for illegal possession of a machine gun and ammunition. One of the men had allegedlymade a series of threats to kill police officers and FBI informants.
FPC is fundraising for its legal challenge to the new regulation — and offering incentives. “Take Biden Admin to Court, Win a B&T KH9-SD,” the fundraiser website reads, declaring that people can win a pistol with a silencer. “FPC is suing President Biden, AG Merrick Garland, and the entire Biden Cabal over their treasonous assaults on the Second Amendment and your fundamental freedoms.”
‘They’ll Think Twice’
Some online ghost gun enthusiasts have cautioned others against being active on mainstream websites, such as YouTube. But many popular accounts have not shied away from posting material on Twitter and YouTube that ridicules the Biden administration and increasingly threatens law enforcement.
Good morning twitter.
Every discussion with an anti. pic.twitter.com/mIo1vYs3Et
— CTRLPew (@CtrlPew2) August 24, 2022
“The ghost gun community has really successfully latched onto the explosion in popularity of anti-government ideologies in recent years,” Lewis, of GWU’s Program on Extremism, said.
In one instance, a ghost gun 3D-printing enthusiast under the name “Kneanderthal” posted a picture of a cartoon ghost (referring to ghost guns) standing in a classroom (where shootings frequently take place in the U.S.), in front of a blackboard that reads: “The second amendment is for shooting cops.” The ghost is holding what looks like a semi-automatic rifle, and wears a military-style helmet that says “Born to Print.”
An account affiliated with Ghost Guns ― one of the biggest distributors of 3D prints for download, and a major seller of ghost gun parts ― describes itself as “more unhinged” than the main Ghost Guns account, which simply promotes materials without posting opinion tweets. In one post, the anonymous administrator behind the page writes: “If you know anything about history, you know what happens when a certain class of people are deemed the enemy, and unfit to exist in a peaceful society.”
“Our advice is, get armed,” the post continues. “Get so armed that when they come for you, they’ll think twice.”
I would caution against underestimating people like this — they have proven time and time again that they are quite capable.Colin Clarke, director of research at the Soufan Group
Ghost gun enthusiasts have become increasingly frustrated with nonprofit organizations and journalists, whom they blame for getting their content removed from mainstream platforms. In newsletters, ghost gun groups have accused YouTube of unnecessarily removing their videos. YouTube’s policy, according to spokesperson Jack Malon, says users cannot upload content on how to make a gun, but the platform does allow gun reviews, dialogue about gun legislation, and even gun demonstrations if the environment is safe. “Ourfirearms policy has long prohibited content intended to instruct viewers on how to make firearms, including ghost guns or 3D printed guns,” Malon said.
But a removal from YouTube doesn’t mean users won’t find other ways to share tips and tricks on how to build ghost guns. Print Shoot Repeat, a prominent page that shares building plans, memes and other 3D-printed firearm tips, announced in August that it had deleted some videos after seeing other channels get removed from YouTube. Print Shoot Repeat instead instructed followers to go to its page on Odysee, a website dubbed the “YouTube of the far right” by extremist experts and littered with ghost gun plans, prints and parts.
“They can do what they need to without coming under government purview. They love challenges like this and they want to develop more technologies,” said Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow and director of research at the Soufan Group, a security consulting firm.
“We underestimate these folks too often when there are talented smart people investing in these technologies,” said Clarke, who focuses on domestic and global extremism at Soufan. “I would caution against underestimating people like this — they have proven time and time again that they are quite capable.”
The “million-dollar question,” Lewis said, is whether it’s even possible to enact policies that will meaningfully curb the sale of ghost guns and parts.
“It’s a topic that gets a lot of eyes on it whenever a particularly violent act is done with a ghost gun, but eyes are fleeting and there is little evidence to suggest a sea change to the government’s approach to ghost guns or firearms writ large is forthcoming,” Lewis said. “Realistically, in the absence of meaningful executive or legislative branch efforts to cut to the core of this issue, this becomes a law enforcement triaging problem.”
A rise in death threats to law enforcement has been an ongoing issue — and it has only worsened since the FBI raided Mar-a-Lago this summer to find classified documents former President Donald Trump had kept there. “The allure to violent extremists has remained a point of concern in recent years, and I expect this to continue as anti-democratic and collapse narratives remain central motivators for these actors,” Lewis said.
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, who often consults with the federal government in developing strategy, told HuffPost that federal law enforcement is aware of the change in extremist activity in recent years, and of the threats against their officers. But, he said, tackling the issue has proved daunting.
“We’ve seen an escalation of threats against government officials of all stripes,” Levin said. “What remains to be seen is how chases turn into charges and trials.”
Realistically, in the absence of meaningful executive or legislative branch efforts to cut to the core of this issue, this becomes a law enforcement triaging problem.Jonathan Lewis, research fellow at George Washington University
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who has been an outspoken advocate for gun control since the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in his state, wrote a public letter to the ATF in September to offer suggestions and request information on the agency’s plans ― specifically, how the ATF intends to use “these new and expanded criminal penalties to prevent gun violence and illegal gun sales.”
Murphy emphasized the online marketplace as a major source of illegal activity. “It is critically important that ATF’s strategy focus on the source of illegal guns and not just the individuals breaking the law,” he wrote. “I would appreciate an update on how ATF intends to investigate online gun marketplaces for illegal activity and ensure that the operators of those sites are not consciously disregarding the harm they are causing.”
The ATF has not responded to Murphy’s letter, but told HuffPost that it will. Neither the FBI nor the ATF has released any public plans for how to tackle domestic extremists’ use of ghost guns outside of the new regulation.
“ATF is aware of longstanding anti-government sentiment towards ATF and other government agencies; however, ATF does not discuss the techniques used in its investigations of violent criminal activity,” an agency spokesperson told HuffPost.
The FBI declined to answer HuffPost’s questions about what system is in place to track threats, future plans to curb extremism-related crime, and statistics on attacks on law enforcement.
“While we do not have a comment on the specific questions, the FBI takes all potential threats seriously, including threats to law enforcement,” the bureau said. “We work closely with our law enforcement partners to assess and respond to these threats.”
“I talk to a lot of folks in the bureau, and I know there are people who are concerned,” Clarke said. “They’re probably frustrated that law isn’t more mature and developed because they’ll be blamed if something goes wrong.”
But, Clarke added, the far right has a long history of skirting regulations and developing new technologies, and extremist groups will do what they can to evade federal oversight.
“Once legislation is developed, I can nearly guarantee that it’ll be obsolete. These types of technologies move one or two steps before the law does,” he said. “You’re constantly trying to play catch-up.”