Everything Is Just Dandy!

A Simple Plastic Tool Is Undermining New Ghost Gun Rules

VICE US
Keegan Hamilton
2022-09-12
https://www.vice.com/en/article/epzb3a/ghost-gun-jig-tool

It’s been less than a month since new federal rules took effect attempting to rein in the proliferation of so-called “ghost guns,” a catchall term for unserialized, home-built firearms that Democratic leaders, law enforcement officials, and gun control groups say are turning up in the hands of criminals across the United States.

But barely a few weeks into the new regulatory regime, the firearms industry has already adapted and scored an early legal victory. And gun enthusiasts have created and released open-source blueprints for a simple plastic tool that offers a relatively quick, easy—and apparently legal—workaround for anyone who still wants to build an untraceable weapon.

The tool, known as a jig, is designed to help with the assembly of the exact type of Glock-style pistol frames that the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) is trying to restrict. One version was posted by Ethan Middleton, a Wisconsin-based 3D-printed gun file designer known online as Middleton Made.

“It’s the biggest middle finger to the ATF,” Middleton told VICE News. “Whatever they’re going to do, we’re going to try to find a way around it.”

The new ATF rules, announced by President Joe Biden earlier this year, are largely aimed at “kit guns,” which include a pistol frame and other essential parts, including a jig and other tools for home assembly. When frames come only partially complete (“80 percent” finished, with some holes left undrilled), they are not legally considered firearms, meaning they do not require a serial number and could be purchased without a background check in most states.

The new rules say that when an unfinished frame or receiver is “distributed, or possessed with a compatible jig or template,” it can be considered a firearm under the law because it makes completing the build process faster and easier. 

As a result, some retailers have responded by selling only the pistol frame alone, while others are selling kits that include the necessary parts and tools but no frame. Jigs are a common tool and factory-made versions are available online, but prices have climbed to over $100, making the 3D-printed version an extremely low-cost alternative.

“They didn’t always have that price tag associated with them,” Middleton said. “Just because they are scarce now, that’s where the price is coming from.”

Another designer that created and released files for a 3D-printed jig, who goes by the handle Mr. Snow, told VICE News the ATF’s new rules were in place for less than a week when he released his file publicly for anyone to download. The point, he said, is to keep “entry level” gun building accessible as a hobby. He also voiced frustration with the rule change, saying it’s still vague about exactly when an unfinished frame and other tools and parts cross the line.

“It’s like Schrödinger’s gun,” said Mr. Snow. “We’re not really sure when it becomes a gun. It just depends how hard you look at it, and which amalgamation of parts you have.”

The ATF’s new rule has also faced legal challenges. On Sept. 2, a federal judge gave an early victory to a company called Tactical Machining, which manufactures frames for AR-style rifles and says they could be forced out of business because of the changes. The lawsuit, VanDerStok v. Garland, claims the ATF did not follow the proper rulemaking process. While implementation has been allowed to proceed nationally, Tactical Machining won a ruling that says they are likely to eventually prevail and that a “weapon parts kit is not a firearm.”

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A Glock-style pistol frame in a 3D-printed jig that assists home builders with drilling the necessary holes to complete the assembly process. (Photo via Mr.Snow.Makes)

Jim Jusick, design engineer and manager at Tactical Machining, told VICE News the Florida-based company, which has around a dozen employees, was among the first in the industry to cater to customers seeking to custom-build AR-15s at home. Jusick said they have been forced to stop making and selling jigs, and they are currently sitting on several thousand dollars worth of raw materials purchased before the new rule was unveiled.

“The customer, it’s more difficult for them to complete [the unfinished receiver], they won’t buy it as readily as with the jig,” Jusick said. “Now they understand they have to seek out jigs, we’re not even supposed to offer any advice on how to find them.” 

Jusick said his company continues to sell “80 percent” parts, but with no jig or other components, a move that, according to an excerpt from correspondence he shared with VICE News, was approved in writing by the local ATF office.

“As we’ve been instructed, and our understanding here in Orlando, the unfinished receiver, without a jig, instructions, or template is NOT A FIREARM,” Jusick’s letter from the ATF said. “The combination of such an item (unfinished receiver) with other parts (Excluding the Jig) does not reach the standard for Readily Convertible. In other words, your manufacture and selling of unfinished receivers with a lower parts kit does not meet the firearm threshold.”

Tactical Machining’s lawsuit says they were among the companies affected by UPS’ decision to stop shipping products for ghost gun parts retailers. While the U.S. Postal Service remains an option, FedEx has also stopped shipping in response to public pressure

In a Sept. 8 court filing, the Tactical Machining’s lawyers asked the judge to expand the court’s preliminary injunction and “fully preserve the status quo” by restoring the old frame and receiver rules nationwide. 

“This is indirectly and swiftly killing off Tactical Machining’s business,” the court filing said.

Lawyers for Tactical Machining said the ATF rule has been “eviscerating demand for its products,” and that “revenue for the first week of September is down approximately $60,000 from the same period last month.”

Jusick emphasized that he sees a distinction between metal AR-15 parts and Glock-style pistol frames, which are typically made of polymer. While the plastic can be drilled out relatively quickly, the metal AR receiver takes hours of labor to complete.

“I’ll kiss your ass if you can make one of these in 15 minutes,” Jusick said. “It takes a proper machine. It takes legitimate skill. You don’t see these gangbangers making our product into weapons. They’re using these plastic pistols. I got nothing against those plastic pistols, that’s just the reality.”

Earlier this year, VICE News obtained data from local law enforcement agencies in the major cities around the U.S. showing major increases in the number of ghost guns being recovered during police investigations. The Department of Justice reports that over 45,000 “privately made firearms” have been recovered since 2016, including in 692 guns linked to murder or attempted homicide investigations. 

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A completed "ghost gun" pistol with the 3D-printed jig used for the assembly process. (Photo via Mr.Snow.Makes)

Ghost guns have been the focus of advocacy groups like the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, and the organization’s deputy chief counsel, David Pucino, told VICE News they believe the ATF’s new rules will hold up in court. In the meantime, he said, even if the ATF is sanctioning sales of unfinished frames with no jigs or other items, it’s still risky for retailers to sell ghost gun parts because they could face civil litigation.

“It doesn’t mean individuals who are harmed by ghost guns they sell couldn’t bring a lawsuit,” Pucino said. “Maybe don’t sell the parts used to make guns that are flooding the streets, but that is what they do for business. That is how they keep the lights on.”

(Jusick emphasized that Tactical Machining follows the law, and said the company has donated rifles and equipment to local law enforcement agencies in Florida.)

Another ghost gun parts retailer, Cody Wilson, who invented the first 3D-printed gun and is now an executive at Ghostguns.com, said the new rules have actually been great for business. In addition to selling a machine that finishes incomplete frames and receivers, he also sells parts kits for a variety of guns and is developing commercially-made jigs.

“It’s a huge opportunity,” Wilson said. “It’s a plastic gold rush.” 

Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter.