WASHINGTON – The White House is trying to craft a series of executive actions for President Joe Biden to sign to try to limit gun violence, hoping they cannot be quickly dismantled in court, according to aides and gun safety groups.
Among the measures being considered — and strongly encouraged by activists — is one directing the U.S. Justice Department to reinterpret existing law on untraceable “ghost guns.”
So-called ghost gun kits are self-assembled from parts purchased online or at gun shows and are increasingly associated with crimes. But they are not classified as firearms and so can be legally sold without serial numbers or background checks.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has said more than 30% of the illegal weapons it has confiscated in some areas of California are ghost guns.
Changing the designation of such weapons would likely set off an instant legal challenge, as have other attempts to limit gun ownership in recent years, for instance the December 2018 ban by President Donald Trump on “bump stocks.”
Two top White House aides, Cedric Richmond and Susan Rice, held a series of meetings early in the Biden administration to begin soliciting views on gun violence policy from safety activists and community leaders. Justice Department officials have met with the gun industry.
Among the topics discussed, according to attendees, were ghost guns, pushing the Justice Department to bring more cases against firearms dealers and manufacturers, limiting exemptions for private sales from background check rules, and alerting local law enforcement when someone fails a federal background check.
Mass shootings last month in Georgia and Colorado have put pressure on the White House to act, as swift legislation is not likely through Congress. Press secretary Jen Psaki reiterated on Thursday that the administration is looking at executive orders.
Police say the deadly shootings at spas in the Atlanta area and a supermarket in Boulder were carried out by suspects using legally purchased firearms.
Biden has said the administration is exploring whether he has the authority to take action on firearms made using 3D printers as well as on imported guns.
“We stand ready and all options are on the table,” said Amy Hunter, a spokeswoman for the pro-gun National Rifle Association, when asked about the possibility of presidential executive orders.
White House and Justice Department lawyers are working to anticipate a raft of legal challenges, aides and allies said.
The gun lobby is “a litigious group and will potentially take action in court — but their track record with litigation is remarkably poor,” said Nick Suplina, managing director for law and policy at Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund Inc., an advocacy group that works with the administration.
“We’re optimistic that we will see action from the White House in the near future.”
The Justice Department needs to create a paper trail to show that any rule change was not abrupt or political, that it has a strong foundation in law, and that officials followed a reasoned and orderly process before making the change, lawyers and activists say.
“They are talking about the levers that they have to address gun violence,” said Christian Heyne, vice president of policy at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a group that has met with White House. “That’s reflected in some of the meetings they had.”
The administration is also studying previous legal challenges from the gun industry, like the one that followed Trump’s ban on bump stocks. The devices, which enable semiautomatic weapons to fire in rapid, sustained bursts, were used in the October 2017 mass shooting at a Las Vegas concert that killed 60 and wounded more than 400.
The Supreme Court has allowed that ban to go into effect as lawsuits continue in lower courts to try to overturn it.
A group of 18 state attorneys general have called on Biden’s Justice Department chief Merrick Garland to close what they consider the legal loophole on ghost guns himself.
Absent congressional legislation that cements any U.S. presidents’ executive orders or other policies into law, the conservative-leaning Supreme Court could have the final say.
Last June it sidestepped a major gun ruling, however, by dismissing a challenge to restrictions on handgun owners in New York City and also turned down a slew of other cases seeking to expand gun rights.
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