A picture of NBC studios in New York
A picture of NBC studios in New York / Photo by Ramiro Checchi on Unsplash

ATF Responds to Calls for Investigation of Potentially Unlawful NBC News ‘Ghost Gun’ Segment

NBC News may have violated state and federal gun laws while attempting to demonstrate how loose they are during a recent report.

A collection of gun-rights groups are calling for an investigation into a March 17th report from the network. The groups said an NBC reporter’s decision to purchase a “ghost gun” kit outside his home state and then give it to others to build into a finished firearm may have violated state and federal law. The activists called for authorities to investigate the details of the purchase and transfer.

“We call on the Biden Justice Department to investigate possible violations of federal gun law, same as that agency would investigate any private citizen who had done the same thing,” Alan Gottlieb, head of the Second Amendment Foundation, said in a press release. “You don’t get a pass simply by working for NBC.”

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) told The Reload it takes all tips provided to the agency seriously. However, it did not say if a formal investigation had been launched.

“ATF greatly values the public’s assistance in providing information about potential violations of the Federal firearms and explosives laws,” Erik Longnecker, an ATF spokesman, said. “All such tips are evaluated and, where appropriate consistent with our investigative priorities and limited resources, referred to the responsible ATF Field Division for follow-up.”

NBC News did not respond to a request for comment.

The questionable report is only the latest in a long line of incidents where reporters have broken the very gun laws they set out to show are too weak. Journalists from NBC, CBS, and a Katie Couric documentary have faced scrutiny for potentially breaking state and federal gun laws during their reporting over the past decade. The mistakes have added to mistrust of major media sources among gun owners.

The NBC report focused on how easy it is to obtain and complete a “ghost gun,” an often homemade firearm without a serial number, under current regulations. The controversy surrounding the report comes when NBC reporter Vaughn Hillyard, who lives in New York, purchases an unfinished frame and the tools necessary to complete it. While the purchase was likely legal, he later gave the kit to a third party to finish building the gun.

That puts Hillyard and the men who built the gun, who were not shown on camera but who NBC identified in the report as working for Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D.), into potential legal trouble. The ATF has been treating unfinished guns coupled with the tools necessary to complete them, often labeled “ghost gun” kits, as though they are finished firearms. The agency even raided a manufacturer of unfinished gun parts in 2020 under the theory the kits are finished firearms and have to be regulated like a functioning gun.

That means a transfer of a handgun kit transferred across state lines would require a background check conducted by a licensed gun dealer in nearly all circumstances. The gun-rights advocates calling for an investigation of the segment said anyone else who made a similar transfer would face scrutiny.

“Neither Mr. Shapiro nor his agents are exempt from these laws,” Andrew Austin, legal counsel for Gun Owners of America, said in a statement. “They aren’t permitted to make guns for third parties or transfer firearms to others without getting a background check. It’s illegal for us and it’s illegal for them.”

The ATF said it is addressing the issue of “ghost gun” kits through federal rulemaking. It noted the rule it proposed states kits would have to be treated exactly like finished guns.

“The proposed regulation makes it clear that persons manufacturing or selling such weapon parts kits would be required to be federally licensed, would need to complete ATF Forms 4473, conduct background checks for sales to unlicensed persons, and abide by the recordkeeping requirements applicable to fully completed and assembled firearms,” Longnecker said. “As with any other firearm, such parts kits would also be subject to interstate restrictions on sale, distribution, receipt, and transportation.”

However, the ATF noted the determination that “ghost gun” kits should be regulated as finished guns was included in the proposed rule “to resolve any possible legal ambiguity” that remains over that decision. That suggests the question remains unresolved until the new rule is finalized and published despite the agency’s previous raid of kit-makers. Additionally, the agency said the transfer rules for the kits might not apply to specific Pennsylvania Attorney General staff if they received them in the course of their job as law enforcement officials.

“Also note that, under 18 U.S.C. § 925(a)(1), these restrictions would not apply to the receipt of firearms shipped to a political subdivision of a state for official purposes,” Longnecker said.

On Monday, the Second Amendment Foundation and Gun Owners of America also joined a letter with three other gun-rights groups calling for the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania legislature to investigate the matter. As first reported by Ammoland, the gun groups focused their ire on Shapiro and called on the House Speaker Brian Cutler (R.) to act on the incident.

“Mr. Shapiro and his office know this was illegal as he has prosecuted individuals for exactly these actions,” the group’s said. “It is the duty and responsibility of the Pennsylvania General Assembly to therefore investigate—and if necessary—hold our Attorney General accountable for any violations of the law or his oath of office that may have occurred.”

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Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019

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Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019

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