Ghost guns are firearms that do not have serial numbers. Law enforcement uses serial numbers to trace weapons as they exchange hands. Ghost guns typically refer to those built from gun kits, which can be purchased online without a background check, and which often come 80 percent preassembled. Kits can be purchased to assemble pistols or AR-15 style firearms.
Carlos A. Canino is a Special Agent in Charge of the Los Angeles Field Division of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Canino says that most anyone with a basic skill set can assemble these guns easily enough that they could be mass-produced. If a person can drill a few holes and connect a few pieces…voila, they have a gun.
“Ghost guns can be used in mass shootings and against law enforcement officers on the streets,” says Attorney Karin Riley Porter. “Despite this, the legal mechanism through which they are regulated is considerably vague.”
In California, state law requires anyone who builds a gun to apply for a serial number, but law enforcement suspects that most ignore this. Some regional branches of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in California are reporting that nearly one-third of all guns confiscated in criminal investigations are ghost guns. Because many ghost guns do not have a serial number, it may be difficult to gather DNA or other evidence to trace who used a ghost gun to commit a crime.
However, in October of 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law a significant change to how the gun kits themselves are regulated. Specifically, Governor Newsom signed AB-879 into law which will affect ghost gun regulation across the state.
Now, anyone buying one of these kits in California must go through a state-level background check before they can purchase a lower receiver or unfinished frame of a firearm from a licensed California vendor. This change also provides the state with a database of who is receiving these materials.
California Assemblyman Mike Gipson acknowledges that there is nothing to stop someone from driving across state lines to buy a gun under different laws, and thus, calls on Congress to act at the federal level.
Several United States Representatives from California have answered his call by co-sponsoring the “Ghost Guns Are Guns Act.” Representatives Judy Chu, Jimmy Gomez, and Norma Torres seek to change the definition of the word “firearm” to include any of several combinations of parts designed and included within these kits for the quick and ready assembly of a gun.
Members acknowledge that even if their bill makes it through the House, it has a steep climb in the United States Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell still has not put forth for a vote the bipartisan background check bill that passed through the House last year.
And yet, Representative Gomez says, ghost gun legislation is a critical measure towards protecting people from gun violence.
For Agent Camino, this can’t happen soon enough. In 10 years, he says 3-D printers will be capable of making quality, high-capacity weapons in somebody’s garage.