Ghost Guns Come Back to Haunt the Biden ATF

The ATF's blunder on 80% frames misfires in court, then backfires as 0% pistols enter the game

Ghost Guns Come Back to Haunt the Biden ATF

In April of 2022, the Biden administration sought to ban the commercial sale of incomplete firearm frames or receivers (commonly referred to as 80% lowers) through ATF Final Rule 2021R-05F. Entirely disrupting the long-held American tradition of home gunsmithing, ATF's activist reinterpretation of an existing law seeks to prohibit the sale of 80% receivers unless the vendor is a federally registered firearms dealer and each sale is approved by the FBI's background check system and accompanied by a permanent record of the transaction.

ATF's 2021R-05F rule tried to accomplish this by legally reclassifying 80% lowers -- partially completed receivers that were not previously regulated as firearms -- as firearms. If you aren't familiar with 80% frames, you should understand that these are plastic or metal blocks that, at the time of their sale, cannot accept the parts, trigger components, or the other pieces necessary for a firearm to operate. They are not guns; they can't be loaded, they can't fire, they have no firing mechanism. And yet the ATF contends that because these could become guns, they should be sold and regulated as guns.

That's because 80% frames are purchased by hobbyists who also buy parts kits, jigs, and tooling and will work at home to complete the rest of the machining and assembly process required to create a viable firearm. Building 80% guns is popular with gun enthusiasts who enjoy the satisfaction of building their own firearms and the personalization of customizing their firearms to their specifications.

The firearms created by these hobbyists are what the ATF calls "privately made firearms" and what the media calls "ghost guns."

An "80%" AR-15 receiver. Note the lack of finish, trigger, or lower receiver parts. The bare metal must be machined away and holes drilled to accommodate the trigger, hammer/trigger pins, safety, and more...

In fairness, some ghost guns are also produced by the criminal element. And it's also true that these firearms have become increasingly popular amongst prohibited possessors. But in a country that has largely traded any real concern for order, public safety, or property rights for legalized shoplifting, mass encampments of homeless drug addicts, and civil rights patronage schemes, one must remember that our government is simply acting in bad faith when it comes to gun laws like 05F.

If it were important to the government to stop gun crime, they would focus their efforts on St. Louis or Baltimore. But it's not important to the government to stop these crimes, it's important to the federal government to stop you from being able to defend yourself from them.

When 05F was added to the federal registrar, Polymer80, Gray Wolf Tactical, Tactical Machine LLC, Defense Distributed, and a number of other companies that specialize in the sale or manufacture of 80% frames, components, and tooling were all at risk of closing or being irreparably harmed by the ATF's new interpretation of existing gun laws.

These conditions precipitated a lawsuit, and in March of this year, a federal judge granted an injunction in favor of, among others, Defense Distributed, the Texas-based maker of the Ghost Gunner machine.

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In addition to being enjoined from enforcing 05F against a number of parties, the ATF also clarified that the Biden ghost gun ban doesn't actually prohibit the sale of 80% lowers per se; it bans the sale of 80% lowers only if they are sold in conjunction with accompanying jigs and parts kits or features certain types of index markings or trigger pockets.

Note: If you want to get into the weeds, there is an explanation with visual aids here about what the ATF says is and is not a firearm. But the short version is that 80% frames are legal to purchase as standalone parts; they just can't be sold as part of a kit or feature any index marks as instructions for where to drill or cut.

Justice Reed O'Connor ruled that ATF was likely to lose on the merits of their case (it turns out that definitionally an 80% frame cannot be a firearm and not a firearm at the same moment in time) and that it would not be fair for companies like Defense Distributed to suffer the consequences of 05F while it was working its way through the court system. In short, ATF got greedy and was dealt a blow in court for their imprudence.

But if March was bad for the ATF's effort against ghost guns, then June is worse. This week, Defense Distributed announced the release of the "G0," a Glock-pattern handgun "whose core firearm component can be milled from an unformed block of metal in the privacy of your own home," according to the company.

They're calling it a zero-percent pistol. A homemade firearm that starts from scratch – simply an unformed metal block – milled into a Glock chassis in the Ghost Gunner 3 desktop CNC machine. The chassis is then installed into a 3D-printed grip module and paired with any standard Glock slide (a non-regulated part), and voila! an unserialized Glock-pattern handgun made by anyone, anywhere.

Not only does the "0%" pistol entirely sidestep the ATF's semantics involving partially completed frames or receivers, but Defense Distributed and its customers are also protected from the ATF by a federal injunction.

In many ways, this could not have played out worse for the ATF. For the anti-gun crowd, it's one step forward and five steps backward.

The state of 3D-printed Glocks is quite evolved, but design limitations can't be avoided using the currently dominant two-piece rail systems. This means that politics aside, the G0 is a promising concept for the gun builder.

G0 pairs the Sig-style chassis system with the FMDA printable frame concept. The FMDA DD17/19 frames are good in the .2 iterations but are still susceptible to failure over time and occasional hiccups in performance.

I haven't run a G0, but it seems intuitive the G0's one-piece steel chassis will yield better performance than the two-piece FMDA design. DD will offer a variety of steels to work off of so that Ghost Gunner owners can build to suit based on their preferences. The FMDA Glocks will remain less expensive to make, but the G0 pistols will likely be closer in quality to an OEM gun.

The middle component is what the GG3 produces. This sits between a printable frame and a standard Glock slide.

The performance of the G0 looks promising. "We tested on a range of steel blocks," Cody Wilson, president of Defense Distributed, tells me. "All the steel chassis we've tested have been tested to over two thousand rounds. I think we'll try to do failure on a few of them. I'm sure we can get a failure on the low carbon...but we haven't experienced any failures yet."

There are plans for the GG3 machine to make FMDA-pattern rails if that's your preference. Wilson adds that tool encoding will differ depending on what type of steel the user is cutting with their machine.

Defense Distributed is in the clear to sell these parts and components, thanks to the ATF's overstep. And Defense Distributed customers are likewise protected by the federal injunction, giving them the green light to purchase these parts and turn them into functional handguns.

When asked why he chose Glock frames for this project rather than, say, Sig grip modules, he explained, "the target of the ATF's rule was always the Polymer80 kit, and so I think the best symbolic justice against the ATF in this moment is just to find another way to do a Glock-alike. I just thought it was more effective than a Sig clone, and it also allows us to say what we wanted to say as an esoteric technology company."