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What Are Ghost Guns and Why Are They So Dangerous?

ghost guns
Ghost guns secured by the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department were put on display during a Feb. 28, 2020, press conference held by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. Mayor Bowser announced new legislation to ban the import of kits and parts used to make untraceable ghost guns showing up on the streets of D.C. The Washington Post/The Washington Post via Getty Images

On a late afternoon in August 2019, California Highway Patrol officer Andre Moye, Jr., 34, pulled over a pickup truck on a freeway for driving illegally in a carpool lane. The driver, a 49-year-old felon named Aaron Luther, had an expired license and no registration. Moye decided to impound the vehicle and was filling out the paperwork when Luther grabbed a military-style semi-automatic rifle from his truck and began firing at him.

Officer Moye was fatally wounded, and when other CHP officers arrived on the scene, Luther fired at least 100 more rounds at them before he was shot by police and killed, according to an account in the Riverside Press-Enterprise.

Luther, who had served 10 years in prison for attempted second-degree murder and other offenses, could not have purchased a firearm legally. But that restriction didn't stop him from obtaining one.

What Is a Ghost Gun?

As law enforcement sources told CNN and NBC News, Luther's rifle was a "ghost gun." Such weapons are assembled by individuals from parts or kits or that include one unfinished piece — typically the frame or receiver — that requires the purchaser to do some drilling to make the gun fully functional. Because of a loophole in federal gun regulations, these DIY weapons don't need to have serial numbers, and the kit or individual pieces can be sold without the background check that someone who purchased a gun from a federally licensed dealer would have to undergo.

Ghost guns in the hands of criminals are a growing problem for law enforcement. In California, for example, 30 percent of guns recovered by law enforcement agencies in investigations now lack serial numbers, as The Trace has reported.

It's easy to find both individual parts for guns and complete kits for sale on the internet that provide everything needed for assembly, David Chipman explains. He served for 25 years in the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and is now a senior policy adviser for Giffords, the gun control organization co-founded by former Democrat Arizona Congress member and shooting survivor Gabrielle Giffords.

"Building a gun in your home has always been lawful, but it wasn't a big issue, because being a gunsmith requires some serious skills and equipment," Chipman says. "The people who did it were mostly hobbyists, who had a lot of time on their hands." Such homemade weapons seldom showed up in crimes, he says.

But now, according to Chipman, it's easy for just about anybody to build an untraceable firearm. "This is literally now happening every day — it's becoming routine for criminals and gun traffickers," Chipman says. "They used to have to use straw purchasers and then obliterate the serial number or alter. Now, smart traffickers would just build the guns."

In February 2020, for example, a North Carolina man was sentenced to 15 years in prison for simultaneously trafficking in guns, methamphetamine and cocaine. Five of the seven weapons that he was transporting from his state to Virginia were ghost guns, according to a U.S. Department of Justice press release.

In addition to street criminals, Chipman says that domestic abusers, terrorists and extremist groups also could take advantage of the ghost gun loophole — "people who can't go into a store and pass a background check or people who want to amass guns and not have the government know about it."

When Is a Gun Not a Firearm?

ghost guns
The ATF determines when a frame or receiver blank, casting or machined body, becomes a regulated firearm part.
ATF

ATF, where Chipman used to work, prefers to call such weapons "privately made firearms," and the criteria that the bureau sets on whether a DIY firearm is subject to regulation isn't easy to figure out. It hinges on the nuances of what legally constitutes a firearm frame or receiver, which the Code of Federal Regulations defines as "that part of a firearm which provides housing for the hammer, bolt or breechblock, and firing mechanism, and which is usually threaded at its forward portion to receive the barrel." (That piece looks something like this.)

"The design characteristics examined by ATF to determine when a frame or receiver blank, casting, or machined body becomes a [regulated] frame or receiver depend on the kind and type of firearm," ATF representative CeCe Gwathmey explains in an email.

She cites the example of an AR-15-type rifle receiver blank, depicted on the ATF website. "In that example, if the receiver blank has a solid, un-machined cavity area with no holes or dimples ('indexing') for the selector, trigger or hammer pins, it does not meet the GCA [Gun Control Act of 1968] definition of a 'firearm,'" she explains. "However, where the fire-control cavity area of the receiver blank is partially machined, or has holes or dimples for the selector, trigger or hammer pins, then the receiver blank has reached a stage of manufacture to be classified as an AR-15 type frame or receiver."

Guns and Serial Numbers

Though it's easy enough to produce parts that fit through the legal loophole, according to the ATF's website, some companies sell supposedly blank receivers or frames that actually are finished to the point that they qualify as regulated firearms.

"Depending on the circumstances, ATF may open a criminal investigation or take other enforcement action when it becomes aware that a person is engaged in the business of dealing in firearms without a license or to out-of-state residents, to include the unlicensed sale of firearm frames or receivers over the internet," Gwathmey explains.

It didn't used to be that arcane. The Gun Control Act of 1968, passed in the wake of the assassinations of U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., mandated that firearms be marked with serial numbers on the frames or receivers to make them traceable by law enforcement agencies. But the law didn't require the rest of a gun's parts to be marked as well.

"Congress said, we're not going to regulate every spring, but we're going to regulate receivers so you can't get around the law," explains Rob Wilcox, director of policy and strategy for Everytown for Gun Safety, an organization that pushes for more regulation of firearms.

ghost guns
Ghost guns, including ones sold as DIY kits like this seen here, are not traceable because the parts lack serial numbers.
MDXArms

What qualified as a finished, regulated frame or receiver, however, was left up to the ATF, which indicated how it defined them through enforcement letters. Up until the mid-2000s, according to Wilcox, the bureau focused on the issue of how easily a blank part could be converted into a functional receiver. "Is it easy to build, like Ikea furniture, or does it require actual machining skill," Wilcox says. But then, "they moved to an enforcement scheme that focuses upon technical aspects of the product," such as whether holes are drilled in the needed places.

Gun control advocates say that the shift makes it possible to sell gun kits and parts that are simple to put together, even for a person with no training as a gunsmith, as long as he or she can figure out how to use a drill and other tools and follow instructional videos available on YouTube.

"We don't think it is complicated," Wilcox says. "A gun is a gun, whether it's made from a kit, or purchased fully assembled. It causes the same harm in the wrong hands."

Regulating Ghost Guns

Legislation recently introduced in the Senate would do that, essentially by requiring that all frames and receivers — even unfinished ones — be marked with serial numbers, and making DIY gun builders go in person to federally-licensed dealers to buy them, so that they would have to undergo the same background checks as purchasers of assembled weapons.

"These proposals wouldn't burden law-abiding citizens who want to build guns," Wilcox says. "But they would make it more difficult for convicted domestic abusers, gun traffickers, felons and terrorists to acquire untraceable ghost guns."

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