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Subway shooting makes GOP's stances on ATF and 'ghost guns' look worse

Biden is trying to do something about gun violence. His Republican opponents are not.
Image: Aerial view of law enforcements officers at the scene of a shooting at the 36th Street subway station in the Sunset Park neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York.
Law enforcement officers at the scene of a shooting at the 36th Street subway station in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, on Tuesday.Victor J. Blue / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Futility and fury. That’s what I experienced in the 24-hour period starting Monday morning. It began with President Joe Biden's attempt to do something — anything — to counter gun violence and ended with a gunman in a Brooklyn, New York, subway firing 33 rounds, hitting 10 people, with another 13 injured.

I appeared on MSNBC on Monday to discuss Biden’s announcement of new restrictions on the manufacture and sale of “ghost guns” and the announcement of his second candidate to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The president’s executive order to regulate ghost guns was a promise that he intends to do anything and everything to battle gun crimes, even if lawmakers won't.

Tuesday, I was on the air once more, this time to discuss yet another mass shooting, this one occurring during the chaos of the morning rush-hour commute. I expressed how furious I am at those who remain unwilling to take commonsense steps against gun violence, and I was reminded of the seeming futility of piecemeal measures that fall short of broader federal legislation.

Biden’s announcement on ghost guns and his nomination of former U.S. Attorney Steve Dettelbach to be ATF director was commendable — not necessarily for any monumental impact it will have on preventing the devastating number of mass shootings in America, but for its defiance in the face of relentless recalcitrance by lawmakers more beholden to the NRA than to public safety. The president’s executive order to regulate ghost guns wasn’t a panacea as much as it was a promise: that he intends to do anything and everything within his limited authority to battle gun crimes, even if lawmakers won’t. His attempt to fill the seat of a Senate-confirmed ATF director, which has been vacant since 2015, sends a similar message that he won’t be deterred in his attempts to make the country safer.

Ghost guns, which can be made at home from a kit and have no serial numbers that allow them to be traced, have become increasingly confounding to investigators trying to solve murders and shootings. According to a Monday statement from the White House, “Last year alone, there were approximately 20,000 suspected ghost guns reported to ATF as having been recovered by law enforcement in criminal investigations — a ten-fold increase from 2016. Because ghost guns lack the serial numbers marked on other firearms, law enforcement has an exceedingly difficult time tracing a ghost gun found at a crime scene back to an individual purchaser.”

The president’s executive order essentially redefines a firearm — for the first time in 50 years. As succinctly explained by The Atlanta Voice and The Associated Press, the new rule modifies the existing definition of a firearm under federal law to include “unfinished parts, like the frame of a handgun or the receiver of a long gun. It says those parts must be licensed and include serial numbers. Manufacturers must also run background checks before a sale — as they do with other commercially made firearms. The requirement applies regardless of how the firearm was made, meaning it includes ghost guns made from individual parts, kits, or by 3D-printers.”

The new regulations won’t stop gun violence, but they most certainly will help solve crimes involving guns by enabling law enforcement to better track and trace the firearms used in violent attacks.

The suspect in this week’s Brooklyn subway mass shooting was identified, at least in part, because the Glock 9 mm pistol found at the scene had a serial number.

The suspect in this week’s Brooklyn subway mass shooting was identified, at least in part, because the Glock 9 mm pistol found at the scene had a serial number, allowing ATF to trace the gun back to the seller and find out who’d purchased it. It’s significant, then, that now, even privately manufactured weapons will be required to carry a serial number, and sellers will be required to record who purchased them.

The Hill reported Thursday that Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said that he and Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla., Mike Braun, R-Ind., and Mike Lee R-Utah, intend to force a vote to invalidate the president's order against ghost guns.

Just as Biden has faced right-wing opposition to his desire to restrict ghost guns, he’s faced opposition from the same people in his attempt to name an ATF director. David Chipman, Biden’s first nominee to head the agency, was vigorously opposed by the NRA and the gun lobby because Chipman, an official at the gun-control group Giffords, was perceived as a brash activist who might pose a threat to unfettered access to guns. Dettelbach, however, is neither brash nor activist. He’s a measured, savvy prosecutor with a record of working alongside law enforcement to make tangible impacts on community safety. He was the U.S. attorney in northern Ohio when I headed the FBI there. I’ve seen him work to make neighborhoods safer, and I believe he can help make the nation safer — if the right side of the aisle will allow him to do it.

We should all channel this week’s fury and futility by calling our legislators in the House and Senate and telling them we’re fed up with inaction on pending gun legislation and outraged that the ATF has been without a Senate-confirmed director for seven years. We should tell them it’s their fault and we’ll hold them accountable come election time. We’ve done something about ghost guns. Now, let’s do something about ghost lawmakers: those who think they can continue to exist without any record of having done anything about the national disgrace of gun violence.