Give Up The Ghost Guns | Crooked Media
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April 11, 2022
What A Day
Give Up The Ghost Guns

In This Episode

  • President Biden announced a new rule that would prohibit the unregulated online sale of “ghost guns,” or firearms that you can self-assemble from kits with gun parts. The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives says that it recovered about 20,000 suspected ghost guns last year, which is ten times more than it did in 2016.
  • The effort to try Russia for war crimes in Ukraine is picking up pace, and the Biden administration is weighing whether to get involved as well. Alex Whiting, a former prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, joins us to discuss what exactly constitutes a war crime and what investigators are looking at right now.
  • And in headlines: Philadelphia will reinstate its indoor mask mandate, Finland and Sweden may join NATO, and thousands of Etsy sellers went on strike.


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Gideon Resnick: It’s Tuesday, April 12th. I’m Gideon Resnick.


Josie Duffy Rice: And I’m Josie Duffy Rice, and this is What A Day, the designated Instagram husband to Pete Davidson and Kim Kardashian when they go somewhere.


Gideon Resnick: Yes, we go, we take pictures, tell them they look handsome and pretty, and we expect absolutely no credit.


Josie Duffy Rice: You know, we’re just honored to take part in the process.


Gideon Resnick: Honored to bear witness. On today’s show, we explain how the process works to try Russia for war crimes. Plus, a spike in COVID cases has Philly telling its residents to put masks back on when indoors.


Josie Duffy Rice: But first, yesterday, President Biden announced a new rule that would prohibit the unregulated online sale of ghost guns.


[clip of President Biden] These guns are weapons of choice for many criminals. We’re going to do everything we can to deprive them of that choice.


Josie Duffy Rice: If you don’t know, ghost guns are firearms that you can basically self-assemble from kits with gun parts. It’s like arts and crafts, but murder-y. And if the idea of ordering a build-a-gun on the internet isn’t scary enough, these guns also don’t have serial numbers, meaning they can’t be traced.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, two aspects that do not seem ideal. So let’s talk about how much of a problem these have become in recent years.


Josie Duffy Rice: They’ve become basically an increasing problem just in the past, like five years alone. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives—which is my favorite agency name, by the way, Gideon, just incredible.


Gideon Resnick: Definitely.


Josie Duffy Rice: —says that they recovered about 20,000 suspected ghost guns last year, 10 times more than they did in 2016. And these guns are particularly popular in places with strict gun regulations like California. The New York Times reported that anywhere from 25 to 50% of guns found at crime scenes in California are ghost guns.


Gideon Resnick: Wow.


Josie Duffy Rice: And ghost guns have been used in at least four school shootings since November, so they’re really on the scene, you know?


Gideon Resnick: Yeah. And to that point, what does this new rule actually do then?


Josie Duffy Rice: So the new rule will quote, “amend the definition of firearm and frame and receiver to cover kits and components that create ghost guns, basically allowing them to be treated like firearms under a federal law.” The rule will also require that the manufacturers that sell the gun parts for assembly are licensed, and will require buyers to undergo background checks. Part of the reason this is a good law is that it really does go after the manufacturers, which is a preferred way of addressing gun regulation without like increasing criminalization. As attorney general Merrick Garland put it in an op-ed that USA Today ran yesterday, “These updated regulations make clear that parts kits that can readily be converted into simple firearms will be treated under federal law as what they are, firearms.”


Gideon Resnick: So I noticed we’re talking about a lot of administrative officials, a lot of administration action, not Congress here, right?


Josie Duffy Rice: Right. Great observation. And Biden made his frustration with Congress on this very issue clear yesterday during the press conference. He basically pointed out that other gun control measures that he has wanted to move forward have been blocked by Congress. You know, Republicans and the NRA predictably pushed back on this regulation, saying that it was federal overreach, et cetera. But they also basically said that it’s a lot of focus on something that’s not that important, since ghost guns aren’t actually the thing driving most gun violence across the country. And that may be true. But the truth is that there’s only so much Biden can do on his own, right? He said yesterday that his efforts to implement stricter regulations like assault weapon bans or universal background checks have really been hampered by Congress’s refusal to act.


Gideon Resnick: And how was this new rule received by gun control advocates?


Josie Duffy Rice: Well, it definitely seems that those advocates are happy to see some movement on the gun control front. A number of gun control advocacy groups had been disappointed in Biden’s lack of urgency and initiative on this issue, and as recently as last week, released a gun violence prevention report card and gave Biden a D+, which is not D for delightful, OK? And WAD listeners might remember us talking to activist and Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg right after the State of the Union, where he said this:


[clip of David Hogg] Although this administration has done more than any administration ever has in American history in its first year to address gun violence, there is still a lot more that they can do.


Josie Duffy Rice: But Hogg was there at the White House when Biden made the announcement yesterday, and he called it a step forward, and he tweeted, “Change takes time, but we are making progress.” One last thing, along with the announcement on ghost guns, Biden also announced that he would nominate Steven Dettelbach to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives—also known as my favorite agency. That agency actually hasn’t had a director since 2015, so it’s a pretty big deal that Biden might actually get someone into that position.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah. We want to turn now to the war in Ukraine because the effort to try Russia for war crimes is picking up some pace. And according to a New York Times report yesterday, the Biden administration is weighing whether and how to actually get involved here as well.


Josie Duffy Rice: So what exactly is being debated here?


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, so. Senior administration officials told the Times that the U.S. government does want to help hold Russian officials accountable for the crimes they may have committed over the course of this war. What often gets constituted as war crimes are willful violations of laws of war, for instance, targeting civilians, torturing people, and the like. But let’s take a step back here for a second and explain why this is somewhat complicated. So the International Criminal Court, or ICC, was created two decades ago as a place for prosecuting war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. But the US is actually not part of the treaty that created the court. This creates restrictions for how involved America could be, but it is important to note that there are exceptions that permit our assistance in certain cases. So at this current moment, the US is still figuring out how to logistically and efficiently work with the other countries involved here. We wanted to get a better understanding of why this is all so complicated. So I spoke with former ICC prosecutor Alex Whiting, and I started by asking him what exactly investigators are looking into at this time.


Alex Whiting: There have been a lot of allegations of civilian targets being hit by shells, missiles, and so forth. And so for those, they’re looking to assess whether a crime has been committed, they’re looking to see if there’s evidence that those targets were hit intentionally, whether the civilians were intentionally targeted. So was there a military target nearby or in the location? Could it have been an accident or is there a pattern of this? But in the last days, there’s also a second set of crimes that are emerging that are more clear cut, which is apparent executions of civilians in the streets. And those are easier crimes to prove. They’re more clear cut. And then the investigators really will turn to, well who was responsible, and who was directly responsible, who committed the crimes with their hands, and who is responsible above?


Gideon Resnick: Yeah. And I saw that there were French expert investigators on the ground at the moment, but who all is involved in the investigation thus far? And I suppose how common or uncommon is it to have a lot of different nations in the mix?


Alex Whiting: It’s really virtually unprecedented in this work in terms of the amount of commitment and energy and political will that is being exhibited to investigate these crimes. There are investigators, first and foremost from the International Criminal Court that they’re on the ground and collecting evidence and analyzing it in The Hague. But they rely heavily on other actors to collect evidence as well. And as you said, the French, the Brits, the Americans, are on the ground assisting in the collection of evidence. Of course, the number one group of investigators are the Ukrainians themselves. Ukrainian prosecutor’s office has deployed hundreds of investigators to collect evidence, they’ve opened up thousands of cases. And so there is a group effort of nations, courts, domestic actors, NGOs, collecting this evidence. And part of the challenge is coordinating those efforts.


Gideon Resnick: Right, it seems like a massive undertaking. There was also this New York Times report about how the U.S. administration is considering assisting the ICC investigation, but that there are limitations there based on preexisting laws. Can you walk us through what those are and then how those play a role here?


Alex Whiting: There are laws in place, the American Service Members Protection Act and other laws, which limit the ability of the government to assist the court either with financial support or information. And that is because there has been a reluctance by the U.S. to support the ICC. But as you said, there are now serious conversations about revisiting that posture and perhaps amending those laws to give the US the ability to provide more assistance in investigations. It already can provide some and provide some evidence in particular cases, but I think there’s a desire to do more. I don’t think the U.S. is going to join the ICC anytime soon, but I think there does seem to be bipartisan support for allowing the U.S. to do more, especially in this particular case.


Gideon Resnick: This might be too much in the realm of hypotheticals and too early, but is there any world in which Putin himself could conceivably be held accountable?


Alex Whiting: At the moment, it seems unlikely and that it might never happen because Russia is also not a member of the ICC. Neither is Ukraine, by the way, but Ukraine granted jurisdiction to the court, so that’s why it’s able to investigate. But Russia, being not a member complicates the ability of the court to arrest anybody that gets charged, because if they’re in Russia, they’re beyond the power of the court. So in the event that Putin is one day charged by the International Criminal Court, the only way he gets arrested is if he travels to a state party—there are a 123 state parties—or if there’s one day a change in government in Russia and the new government decides to surrender him. Now, neither of those scenarios seem particularly likely, but there is precedent in other cases for that. I also think it’s important to point out that even if Putin is not ultimately arrested, the process of investigating these crimes and charging people remains really important because it’s important for the victims that the crimes that are being committed are recognized, it’s an important signal to the combatants and to the mid-level commanders and even the senior commanders, and it’s important for documenting these crimes and making a record of them. And if arrest warrants are issued, even if they’re not executed, those have an impact because they help marginalize the actors who have committed them.


Gideon Resnick: Right. And is there any sort of indication of what a realistic timeline could look like for building these various cases here?


Alex Whiting: Given the investigative efforts that are underway and the enormous amounts of evidence that already seems to be kind of pouring in, it’s not out of the question that it’ll be a matter of months before certain people are charged. I wouldn’t expect Putin to be charged in that timeframe, but perhaps mid-level commanders or even a little bit higher up. That’s not a sure thing. These are hard investigations, and it’s generally a slow process, but here there is, as I said, an enormous energy about these investigations, so it could happen sooner than in most cases.


Gideon Resnick: Josie, that’s my conversation with Alex Whiting, former ICC prosecutor and a deputy prosecutor at The Hague at the moment. We’ll be sure to update you as more things develop, but that is the latest for now. We’re going to be back after some ads.


[ad break]


Gideon Resnick: Let’s get to some headlines.


[sung] Headlines.


Gideon Resnick: Philadelphia is reinstating its indoor mask mandate next week, making it the first major U.S. city to do so this spring. Philly lifted its mandate just last month, but in the past 10 days the city reported a 50% jump in COVID cases—five zero, folks. Hospitalizations are still thankfully low, but the city’s health commissioner said that the uptick in infections may signal a new wave of virus making its way through the city. Philly’s mandate is set to go back into effect next week to get ahead of that possibility, and will be lifted again once cases go below a certain threshold determined by local health officials. A number of U.S. colleges are joining Philly as well after seeing outbreaks on their campuses in recent days. American, Columbia, and Georgetown are some of the universities that have gone back to requiring masks indoors. And Johns Hopkins University has gone a step further, not only reinstating its mask mandate, but also requiring that students be tested for the virus twice a week. These policies come amid the rise of BA-2, the Omicron sub-variant that has become the dominant strain of COVID in the U.S.. I reiterate my position that going to college at any stretch of this pandemic must have been trying, to say the least.


Josie Duffy Rice: You think we had problems in college, these kids.


Gideon Resnick: Bad, bad, bad, bad.


Josie Duffy Rice: According to U.S. officials, NATO may soon welcome two new members to its ranks in wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: Finland and Sweden. The move was discussed in talks between NATO’s foreign ministers last week. Leaders from both countries were in attendance and expressed how the war in Ukraine has changed their relationship with their neighbor. So a quick geography lesson: Finland is right next to Russia, and Sweden is right next to Finland—if you didn’t know that, don’t feel bad. I just learned that. Finnish British Prime Minister Sanna Marin said over the weekend, quote “Russia is not the neighbor we thought it was.” U.S. officials are believed to support the two Nordic countries joining NATO, but Russia was not as thrilled to hear the news. Yesterday Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned both countries against the move and called the alliance a quote, “tool geared towards confrontation.” This was to be expected given how Russia voiced its opposition to any expansion of NATO before its invasion of Ukraine, but recent polls show that the people of Finland and Sweden have warmed up to the idea since the start of the war. U.S. officials say they expect the two countries to apply for membership as early as June.


Gideon Resnick: Buying a custom cross stitch that says “I love shrimp” might currently count as crossing the picket line because thousands of Etsy sellers are striking this week. They’ve set their profiles to vacation mode in protest of the platform’s move to raise its transaction fees from 5 to 6 1/2% effective yesterday. It is the second time Etsy has raised fees in four years, and it comes following a period of rapid growth in sales, with Etsy profiting greatly from a pandemic-driven surge in e-commerce. Etsy CEO says the new money is needed to invest in marketing and compete with other big online retailers like Amazon, but given Etsy’s market position as a source for custom items, some sellers who are striking say that comparison doesn’t even make sense. Because if you want a third-party iPhone charger that will explode on its third use, you go to Amazon. If you want to get said charger bedazzled, you go to Etsy.


Josie Duffy Rice: Correct.


Gideon Resnick: It’s very straightforward. In addition to canceling the new fees, striking Etsy store operators want Etsy to crack down on resellers who sell products made in sweatshops, answer seller help questions faster, and more.


Josie Duffy Rice: I love that Etsy’s like, If we increase our fees by 1.5%, we will then compete with Amazon.


Gideon Resnick: Right. That’s the only limitation there. Not their CEO, you know, having a rocket, or any other signs of garish and disgusting wealth.


Josie Duffy Rice: The Etsy spaceship beckons.


Gideon Resnick: Yes. It would look beautiful, we know that for a fact based on the sellers.


Josie Duffy Rice: It would be gorgeous. So bedazzled, so bedazzled. Which multiplatinum Princess of Pop is using her newfound freedom to gestate what could be the next generation of multi-platinum pop princesses?


[recording] It’s Britney, bitch.


Gideon Resnick: I love that this is just one of the cues that we have permanently.


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, it’s incredible. Britney Spears posted yesterday on Instagram that she and her partner, Sam Asghari are expecting a child. This comes less than six months after a Los Angeles judge ended her nearly 14-year conservatorship, which she described as abusive. One of the most shocking details she shared during testimony last year was that she was forced against her well to use an IUD, at a time when she wanted to have a baby. In her post announcing the baby, Spears said she experienced perinatal depression in previous pregnancies and was glad that the topic is discussed more openly now than it was in the early 2000s. She wrote quote, “Thank Jesus, we don’t have to keep that pain a reserved, proper secret. This time I will be doing yoga every day.” We thank and support Britney for being open about mental health this time around, while also recognizing that being open about exercising daily can feel like an attack on us personally.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, I mean, this is great. Every news item about Britney, it’s lovely. You know, very happy for her.


Josie Duffy Rice: It’s gorgeous. Love it.


Gideon Resnick: And those are the headlines. That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, hold off on your “I love Shrimp” cross stitch, and tell your friends to listen.


Josie Duffy Rice: And if you’re into reading, and not just new pop princess birth announcements like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at I’m Josie Duffy Rice.


Gideon Resnick: I’m Gideon Resnick.


[together] And you look great, Kim and Pete!


Josie Duffy Rice: Key-Pim.


Gideon Resnick: Pim and Kete. That’s just what friends like us call them. It’s just a fun thing we do with our friends. What A Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Jazzi Marine and Raven Yamamoto are our associate producers. Our head writer is Jon Millstein, and our executive producers are Leo Duran and me, Gideon Resnick. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.