What Are Ghost Guns and Why Are They So Dangerous?

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. Research conducted in 2020 by Everytown for Gun Safety, a grassroots organization that pushes for more regulations of firearms, found that 68 percent of online gun sellers today began selling ghost gun parts after 2014. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) says law enforcement around the U.S. reported they had recovered approximately 20,000 suspected ghost guns in criminal investigations in 2021 — an increase of 10 times since 2016.

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 explained when we interviewed him in 2020. He served for 25 years in the federal 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 said. “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 said.

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 said. “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 said 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?

The 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 frame or receiver depend on the kind and type of firearm,” ATF representative CeCe Gwathmey explained in an email in 2020.

She cited 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 explained. “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 explained.

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,” explained Rob Wilcox, director of policy and strategy for Everytown for Gun Safety.

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 said. 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 said. “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 introduced in the Senate in May 2020 would have required that all frames and receivers — even unfinished ones — be marked with serial numbers, and made 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. This bill was stalled in committee.

However, in April 2022, President Joe Biden, in conjunction with the Department of Justice, announced a new rule that expanded the definition of a “firearm,” as covered by the Gun Control Act, to include weapon parts kits, and to make them subject to the same federal laws as other firearms. This final rule bans the business of manufacturing the most accessible ghost guns, such as unserialized “buy build shoot” kits that anybody can buy online or at a store without a background check and then assemble into a working gun at home. This means that commercial manufacturers of “ghost gun” kits will have to be licensed and include serial numbers on the kits’ frame or receivers.

“We are heartened to see the ATF close the loophole that has allowed ghost guns to proliferate,” federal policy director at Giffords Lindsay Nichols said in a statement. “These untraceable firearms pose a grave threat to our families and communities, which this rule addresses. This much-needed regulatory change will also help the ATF combat gun trafficking, through which guns are funneled from the legal to the illegal market.”

Gun rights groups, however, are threatening to sue over the new rule. The National Rifle Association’s (NRA) managing director of public affairs Andrew Arulanandam told Fox News Digital, “the president unveils yet another hollow plan that will not stop this violence. His gun control actions will undoubtedly hearten his wealthy gun control supporters. But, this action sends the wrong message to violent criminals, because this ‘ban’ will not affect them.”

Originally Published: Jun 8, 2020

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