Biden’s Ghost Gun Crackdown Is Starting to Fall Apart

Gun control groups are bracing for a "worst case scenario" after a court partially lifted some federal restrictions on untraceable firearms.
President Joe Biden holds pieces of a 9mm pistol as he speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Monday, April 11, 2022.
President Joe Biden holds pieces of a 9mm pistol as he speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Monday, April 11, 2022.  (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Less than a year after President Joe Biden unveiled rules cracking down on untraceable firearms known as “ghost guns,” groups once in the crosshairs are celebrating as the new regulations crumble under legal challenges.

On March 2, a federal judge in Dallas granted a preliminary injunction to Defense Distributed, a Texas-based company that joined a lawsuit challenging restrictions on unfinished gun parts known as frames and receivers, which combine with other products to enable home assembly of guns with no serial number or paper trail for authorities to track the chain of ownership. While the final outcome is pending, the injunction will allow Defense Distributed to resume selling ghost gun components otherwise banned under federal regulations that took effect last August.


The decision from the court in the Northern District of Texas is currently limited in scope, but other ghost gun parts retailers are seeking to join with Defense Distributed, and opponents warn it could soon open the floodgates. David Pucino, deputy chief counsel at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which is fighting in court to keep the rules in place, told VICE News his group is bracing for the possibility of disaster in the coming weeks.

“If all the entities are allowed to join we’ll basically be back to where we were before the rules took effect,” Pucino said. “This is what the worst case scenario could look like.”

Police and government officials have blamed ghost guns for giving criminals easy access to unregistered weapons. The Department of Justice last year reported recovering more than 45,000 “privately made firearms” since 2016, including nearly 700 linked to murder or attempted homicide investigations. Ghost gun recoveries have spiked by more than 1,000 percent over the last five years, according to federal data.

On the pro-gun side, those fighting to overturn Biden’s ghost gun rules argue that private firearm building is protected by the Second Amendment, and that the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) overstepped its authority by changing the rules on frames and receivers administratively, without an act of Congress.


Defense Distributed’s founder and director, Cody Wilson, said the injunction marks a turning point in the broader fight to overturn federal gun regulations. He expects more victories to follow in the conservative 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and, if necessary, before a Supreme Court that last year set a new precedent that strengthens the rights of individual gun owners.

“The dam has burst,” Wilson said. “And now people are trying to widen that burst.” 

Defense Distributed operates the website and hosts a repository of blueprints for 3D-printed weapons. Wilson rose to prominence in the early 2010s as the developer of the first 3D-printed gun, and pleaded guilty in 2019 to sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl, receiving seven years of probation. He has also crusaded for gun rights, wading into civil litigation with both state and federal authorities. 

In a March 3 post on Defense Distributed’s blog, Wilson celebrated his latest victory—calling out the Giffords organization and the ATF.


“This is not just a blow to ATF, who pushed a new definition of ‘firearm’ at their peril,” Wilson’s post said. “It is also a defeat for Giffords… their lobbying and regulatory laundry has now spectacularly backfired, and I’m going to personally send them a card and fruit basket.”

The ATF’s rulemaking process on ghost guns had faced other unsuccessful challenges in U.S. District Courts, but Judge Reed O’Connor, a George W. Bush appointee, sided with Defense Distributed and another company called Tactical Machining LLC, saying the Biden administration overstepped its bounds and “upset decades of ATF regulatory precedent.”

“The Court also held that the liberty interests of law-abiding citizens wishing to engage in historically lawful conduct (dealing in now-regulated parts)—which Defense Distributed shares—outweighs the Government’s competing interest in preventing prohibited persons from unlawfully possessing firearms,” O’Connor wrote.

A spokesperson for the ATF declined to comment on the litigation. 

While O’Connor’s decision could be overturned on appeal, the 5th Circuit—which includes Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi—has recently proven unfriendly to the federal government on gun-related litigation. In January, the court voted 13-3 to strike down the federal ban on bump stocks—which enable a semi-automatic rifle to mimic machine gun fire—enacted by the ATF through the same rulemaking process as the ghost gun regulations.

Biden signed a bipartisan gun control bill into law last year following the mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas, but the legislation focused on enhancing background checks for gun buyers under 21, funding health services, and closing the so-called "boyfriend loophole" to prevent convicted domestic abusers from purchasing a firearm for five years. While clarifying the definition of a federally licensed firearms dealer and creating penalties for so-called “straw purchases” and gun trafficking, the new law did not tackle ghost guns or accessories like the bump stock, which was used by the gunman in the 2017 Las Vegas massacre that killed 61 people.

The ATF and Biden administration had relied on the federal rulemaking process to respond to ghost guns and bump stocks, but continued losses in court could force federal authorities to go back to the drawing board. And with control of Congress now split between Democrats in the Senate and Republicans in the House, another legislative deal on guns seems unlikely.

While the Defense Distributed injunction is temporary and the final outcome of the case remains undetermined pending a decision in the weeks ahead, pro-gun organizations already seem emboldened. 

Adam Kraut, executive director of the Second Amendment Foundation, said in a statement: “It is refreshing to see rogue administrative agencies being reined in by the checks and balances of our system of government.”