A ghost gun is a firearm without serial numbers. The term is used by gun control advocates, gun rights advocates, law enforcement, and some in the firearm industry. By making the gun themselves, owners may legally bypass background checks and registration regulations. Under U.S. federal law, the creation and possession of ghost guns is allowed, but a license is required to manufacture firearms for sale or distribution.
The lower receiver, which in the United States is the only part legally considered a "gun" (other components may be unregulated), can be completed from an "80% receiver", one which is 80% completed before being sold legally without background or identity checks. The remaining 20% of the work may then be done using common drill press or Dremel machine tools or available hand tools. Companies sell kits including drill bits, stencils, and jigs to aid the process, but some proficiency with the equipment may be required. More recently it has been possible to produce the receiver from scratch using plastic or more durable metal in a 3D printer, though the variety of materials and methods can create challenges in ensuring the resulting receiver is suitable for use. More recently Defense Distributed introduced a CNC mill called the "Ghost Gunner" which is optimized for the purpose of carving the lower receiver from an aluminium unfinished receiver.
Some ghost guns are AR-15 style firearms. AR-15s are modular firearms and the serial number is applied to the lower receiver, which holds the trigger group. Once an individual has an AR-15 lower receiver, they can assemble a complete weapon using widely available components, such as barrels, stocks, magazines, and upper receivers. Other ghost guns include pistols and AK-47 style semi-automatic rifles. The Philippines is a center of ghost gun production, especially .45 caliber semi-automatic pistols.
Due to their lack of serial numbers, tracing ghost guns used in crimes is much harder than tracing serialized weapons. There are no manufacturer or sales records to check. The difficulty means local law enforcement officers often do not even attempt traces of ghost guns.
California, especially Sacramento, has been a hub of ghost gun production. The ATF speculated in 2014 that there are tens of thousands of ghost guns in California alone. Four noted crimes in California were committed with ghost guns: a murder-suicide involving college students in Walnut Creek, a shootout between hostage-taking bank robbers and Stockton police officers, a mass shooting at Santa Monica College in 2013 by a student who was prohibited from owning a gun, and a shooting spree at Rancho Tehama Reserve in 2017 by a man who was served a restraining order that barred him from possessing guns.
Proponents of ghost guns include gun rights activists and anarchists. They say that making weapons is the right of every American which maintains the privacy of gun owners. Individuals have organized "build parties" where equipment and expertise are shared to help create ghost guns. Advocates say that ghost guns are used in crime rarely despite widespread ownership. Gun rights advocates and law enforcement say that, because of the cost and effort needed to create ghost guns, criminals are more likely to use commercial weapons instead.
United States federal law
Under U.S. federal law owning a ghost gun is allowed, assuming that no other impediments exist. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) officials characterize this as a loophole. The U.S. State Department has sued to take computer files to control 3D-printers off the internet under the grounds their publication constituted export of a munition under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations. With a legal case pending United States Supreme Court action, Defense Distributed removed the files, but the censored blueprints remain accessible via The Pirate Bay's "Physibles" section. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reported in 2013 that it had seized hundreds of ghost guns, including a machine gun, and unregistered silencers. The FBI does not generally track the use of homemade firearms. ATF agents say that ghost guns are sold at a $1,000 premium due to being untraceable. According to the FBI, the popularity of ghost guns grew following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, which sparked fears of new gun control measures.
In a 2014 raid of Ares Armor, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms confiscated 6,000 receiver blanks which they said were too close to finished units. After a lawsuit, all but 18 of the seized guns were returned and placed for sale to purchasers in 47 states. In a similar case, EG Armory of California was raided, but agreed to forfeit 3800 lower receivers without admission of any wrongdoing. In Sacramento the owner of C&G Tool Inc. pled guilty to illegal manufacture of firearms. Prosecutors argued that he "advertised his shop as a place where people could make guns in 20 minutes by pressing a few buttons on a computerized machine", rejecting his position that buyers created their own guns.
California state law
In 2014, California attempted to enact a law to require serial numbers on unfinished receivers and all other firearms, including antique guns, but it was vetoed by the governor. However, in 2016, it passed a measure requiring anyone planning to build a homemade firearm to obtain a serial number from the state (de facto registration) and pass a background check.
New York State law
In 2015, during the state of New York's first prosecution for sale of ghost guns, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said it is "easy" for "criminals to make completely untraceable, military-grade firearms."
New Jersey State law
S-2465 enacted in 11/2018 prevents the manufacturing, and purchasing of guns or parts that is or can become an untraceable firearm. Multiple arrests were made within months of this law going into effect. Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has been aggressively prosecuting infractions of this law. New Jersey has filed a lawsuit against U.S. Patriot Armory a company that has allegedly sold AR-15 build kits to NJ residents.
Connecticut State law
As of October 1, 2019, all manufactured guns will be required to have a serial number obtained from the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection engraved. Plastic, undetectable guns are also banned.
- Beyer, Katherine E. Busting the Ghost Guns A Technical, Statutory, and Practical Approach to the 3-D Printed Weapon Problem 103 Ky. L.J. 433 (2014–2015)
- 3D printed firearms
- Gun control
- Gun politics in the United States
- Improvised firearm
- List of notable 3D printed weapons and parts
- Right to keep and bear arms
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