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Ghost Guns: The Untraceable Killers

Written by Kevin Jennings

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.” This is the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution. Americans have a long history of debating exactly what those words mean, and just how for that protection offered under the Constitution extends. We’re not going to attempt to answer those questions today, but we are going to discuss the topic of a new executive order issued by President Joe Biden: ghost guns. What they are, are they legal, what does the new execute order do, and why does President Biden’s administration believe this executive order was necessary.

What Are Ghost Guns?

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            The short answer is that a ghost gun is any gun that does not have a serial number through which it can be traced. This can be accomplished in a few different ways. The more traditional way to create a ghost gun would be to purchase a gun kit. Often referred to by the nickname “buy, build, shoot” kits, these are kits that can be purchased either at retail stores or online with no background check required, and include all the parts necessary for a working firearm, with an asterisk that we will address later. These are also often referred to as 80% kits.

            Another way to create a ghost gun is to buy all the parts individually, rather than buy a prefabricated kit. Any part of a gun that does not have a serial number can be bought and sold without the need for background checks. Each gun only has one component with a serial number, which means you can buy individual parts from a number of different sources to make any possible origins of a gun much more difficult to ascertain. Ghost guns already do not have serial numbers, but the extra cautious individual may choose to go this route.

In both these examples, there is still the matter of the portion of the gun that normally would have a serial number on it, were it legally considered a firearm. In the past, the easiest option was to machine the final piece of the gun yourself, but technology has given us another way, and it is the third way in which a person can create a ghost gun: 3D printing. With 3D printing technology, the soon to be gun owner could print the final piece of the gun, the piece that would normally have a serial number on it.

Not only can you 3D print the missing piece of your gun, you can 3D print a gun wholesale if you like. The earliest and most famous design for a 3D printed gun is the Liberator, created in 2013. As is to be expected from a plastic gun, the Liberator has a relatively low effective range and does not have a very long lifespan, normally about 8-10 rounds. Still, the only components needed to print your very own Liberator are access to a 3D printer and ABS filament, a bullet, and a nail. The Liberator is considered open source and the design plans for it are readily available online for free.

Legality

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            With gun control having been such a hotly debated issue for decades, and with the emphasis being placed on tighter gun regulations to ensure that anyone with a gun passes a background check first, was any of this legal? The answer, as with most legal questions, is “it depends”. There are some states with stricter gun control regulations, but at least under federal law all of this was completely legal.

            Under United States federal law, it is legal for a citizen to manufacture a gun for their own private use, so long as they are not already prohibited from owning a firearm. As such, anyone can purchase parts to make a gun without the need for a background check, they just can’t purchase a firearm. So this raises the question of how exactly is a firearm defined?

            In terms of purchasing a gun, it is the portion that has the serial number that is considered the firearm. For a handgun this is generally the frame and for an assault rifle it is the lower receiver. A ghost gun can be created by purchasing the other parts of the gun and then 3D printing the frame or lower receiver. The alternative is an 80% gun kit, which is a more colloquial name than technical.

            Makers of gun kits naturally want to sell the easiest product to assemble as possible, and as such they want to construct the most complete kits they can. However, by including a lower receiver, they would be selling a firearm which has all sorts of laws and regulations associated with it. But what if they sold you a metal block in the shape of a lower receiver, often referred to by homemade gun enthusiasts as a “paperweight”? It can’t slot into the gun without being machined first to drill holes through the metal, as well as needing some other minor touch ups. Since it’s not functional, it couldn’t qualify as a firearm.

            Of course, as long as a person had access to a metal shop with the necessary tools, turning an 80% kit into a functional gun was a fairly easy task, and there was no legal requirement to put a serial number on or register the newly created firearm. They cannot legally sell or give it to anyone as you only have the right to manufacture guns for personal use, but the person would still have their very own ghost gun.

            The responsible gun owner would tell you that it’s still a good idea to put a serial number on your newly minted firearm for a variety of reasons. The responsible gun owner who is more wary of the federal government will also tell you that it’s a good idea to put the serial number there so the firearm has one, but will also remind you that you are under no legal obligation to register that serial number with the government.

            All of this only addresses guns that are of mostly traditional construction, possibly with either a frame or lower receiver that has been 3D printed. That still leaves the legality of a 3D printed gun like the Liberator, but once again the answer is “it depends”.

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            After an initial legal disagreement, it was decided that the plans for the Liberator were legal, with a caveat. One of the big issues with a fully 3D printed gun was that it was made entirely out of plastic, making it a violation of the 1988 Undetectable Firearms Act signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. Under the law, all firearms must contain a metal component that will make them identifiable by metal detectors. So as long as you promised to always include a metal plate when assembling the gun, 3D printed firearms were deemed legal and did not need to be registered.

            And of course, this is all federal law we have been talking about and some states have restrictions on the types of guns you can own, even if manufactured yourself. For example, while there is no federal law against purchasing a gun kit for an AR-15, you could not legally possess it in the state of Massachusetts, among others.

 Biden’s Executive Orders

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            This month’s executive order was a follow up to President Biden’s executive order regarding gun control from late February this year. The initial order created a National Ghost Gun Enforcement Initiative through the Department of Justice to train prosecutors and provide investigation and prosecution tools.

            There were three key points to the April 11 executive order. The first was redefining what the terms “frame” and “receiver” mean from a legal and regulatory viewpoint. The gun control laws written decades ago were when the frame or receiver of a gun was a single piece that housed many vital components of a firearm. As technology progressed, and split receivers were created, the original wording was interpreted by courts in such a way that we find ourselves in the position we are in now. The lower receiver is still the receiver, so that is the part that constitutes a firearm and thus needs a serial number, even if the lower receiver is essentially a paperweight with some holes drilled through it.

            The second part of the executive order mandates that any federally licensed firearm dealers must keep their records for as long as they remain in business, whereas previously records only had to be kept for 20 years.

            Onto the most relevant part of the executive order as it is related to 80% gun kits that could previously be purchased and sold with no federal oversight. Under the new rules, these kits will be considered “firearms” under the Gun Control Act, and thus the manufacturing and sale of such kits would be illegal. Any company that wishes to continue to sell these kits must become licensed with the federal government to do so, and most notably they must put serial numbers on the frames or receivers of all firearm kits. Because they will now be considered firearms, they will also be subject to background checks.

            Finally, any ghost gun that enters the possession of a registered firearms vendor is required to put a serial number on it before selling it. Early we said you cannot sell guns you manufacture for personal use, but the exception to that is federally licensed dealers, such as pawnbrokers and gun stores. This rule will also apply regardless of how the gun was constructed. Whether it is an 80% kit that was assembled by the owner, a gun with a 3D printed receiver, or an entirely 3D printed firearm, it must be given a serial number once it is in the hands of a licensed dealer. 

Why Was This Necessary?

            As technology becomes cheaper, ghost guns become easier to manufacture. Falling costs of both 3D printers and Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines have made ghost guns much more affordable with must less expertise required. CNC machines are used to turn a 80% gun kit into a functioning frame or lower receiver, and both they and 3D printers eliminate much of the technical knowledge that would normally be required for manufacturing a gun for personal use as designs can be downloaded for free online.

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            With increased access to ghost guns comes increased risk. Not necessarily a risk of a greater rate of crime, but a greater risk of unsolved crime. The issue with ghost guns, and for many the appeal of them, is that they cannot be traced which makes law enforcement’s job more difficult. This is also why there was the change for how long records must be held as part of this executive order. The White House reported that according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) National Tracing Center, an average of more than 1,300 firearms recovered by police each year cannot be traced because the records were destroyed. These records were destroyed in accordance with the law as they were over 20 years old, but they still would have been vital for law enforcement.

            Whether the increase in ghost guns has increased the amount of gun related crime or gun related deaths is difficult to say. The United States’ saw its highest number of gun related deaths on record in 2020 (statistics for 2021 are not yet available). However, this doesn’t tell the whole story as the United States also saw its highest population on record as well. The rate of gun deaths per 100,000 people is well below the all time high seen in 1974, but it is also the highest it has been in roughly 25 years, and there has been a consistent upward trend matching the rise in popularity of ghost guns. Correlation may not equal causation, but it’s still worth keeping an eye on.

            Still, the number of ghost guns recovered by law enforcement is increasing at a nearly exponential rate. In 2021, approximately 20,000 suspected ghost guns were reported to the ATF, ten times the amount in reported in 2016, just five years prior. Even more troubling are the numbers out of California, the state regarded as having the strictest gun control laws in the country. In 2021, 20% of guns seized by San Francisco police were ghost guns, as were 24% of those seized in Los Angeles. That’s roughly 2,000 ghost guns in Los Angeles alone.  

https://flic.kr/p/2nhudAt Gov. Wolf: Pennsylvania State Police Prepared to Implement Stricter Ghost Gun Regulations in Commonwealth

Will It Work

            What we can infer from that data in California is that their stricter gun control laws are working to keep registered firearms out of people’s hands, and thus they are resorting to legal backchannels to acquire their guns. It’s hard to predict what effect the executive order will have, but California may be the place to keep an eye on to try to determine the effects.

            The problem is that this doesn’t necessarily go far enough to prevent ghost guns, but how could it? The technology exists, and it is only becoming cheaper. 3D printing designs for frames, lower receivers, and entire guns are freely available. There is a strong argument that this executive order is going to greatly reduce the amount of guns being built from 80% kits, as they will have serial numbers attached. However, many guns are sold in two separate kits. One kit is the 80% frame or receiver, and the other kit is everything else.

            With no regulations or restrictions placed on other gun parts, there’s nothing to stop people from ordering every other part of a gun online and simply 3D printing the frame or receiver at home. Only time will tell how this decision will play out and whether or not it will truly curb the rising prevalence of ghost guns in America.

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