Why are some police concerned about 'ghost guns'?

Homemade guns don't require serial numbers, and owners don't need licenses to build them. As the DIY market grows, some have called for additional regulations. Others say there are bigger gun problems to tackle.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP/File
Three variations of the AR-15 rifle are displayed at the California Department of Justice in Sacramento, Calif. While the guns look similar, the bottom version is illegal in California because of its quick reload capabilities.

Police and some lawmakers are becoming increasingly concerned about the DIY gunmakers movement. But it's not the new, homemade weapons as much as the lack of a serial numbers to track these so-called "ghost guns" that has them thinking of ways to grapple with the trend. 

Firearm enthusiasts and hobbyists have long sought to customize and build their own guns, and technology is making it easier than ever before. With the rise of 3D printing, gunmaking has become both more affordable and accessible. Gun collectors and Second Amendment activists see this as technological progress that makes it easier to access their right to assemble their own weapons, or pieces of them, in their homes.

But the DIY gun movement also allows irresponsible gun owners to fly under the radar, potentially placing weapons without serial numbers in the hands of convicted felons or mentally unstable individuals. 

Is the rise of the DIY gun a major concern for law enforcement? 

“We’re flailing away in the gun control area and kind of jumping from one thing to another,” Jim Jacobs, the director of the Center for Research in Crime and Justice at New York University, tells The Christian Science Monitor. “That makes a certain amount of sense because there are immense amounts of guns and an immense amount of ways to move into the illegitimate markets.”

Federal law doesn't require that homemade guns for personal use bear a serial number, and there's no need to pass a background check or wait through the mandated three-day period to obtain a license to build the weapons. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms defines these weapons as “unfinished” or “80 percent” receivers, but they’re commonly known as “ghost guns.” While the trend has raised alarm among law enforcement and caught the attention of legislators, experts say the loophole is just one of many that makes obtaining unlicensed or undocumented weapons easier.

Every gun tells a story,” Lieutenant Lanny Edwards, who works for the police department in Walnut Creek, Calif., an affluent city near Oakland, told The Trace. When investigating a 2015 murder, his department found two guns, each without a serial number. “With a ghost gun, it’s just a piece of metal. There’s no way to track it back.”

But there’s no sure, sweeping reform that can immediately eradicate that issue.

“It’s like trying to plug every loophole,” Dr. Jacobs says of legislative reform.

In June, California legislators passed a law that will restrict how homemade guns can be sold and require those with homemade guns to register the weapons. The law, which was previously vetoed by the governor, is slated to come into effect by 2019. It's the first state to pass such a law on ghost guns. 

But some intent on keeping their guns under the government radar have launched new ventures that allow them to market unfinished receivers or even 3D printing patterns to buyers, creating a modern system through which they can build their own weapons. Cody Wilson, founder and director of the Austin-based nonprofit Defense Distributed, has sold both, beginning with a 3D print model a few years ago and recently rolling out the Ghost Gunner, which manufactures rifles' lower receivers to completion. 

“The Second Amendment to us is a do-it-yourself project,” Mr. Wilson tells the Monitor. “If you can have a homemade gun and no one knows about it, you have political power.”

Wilson, whose widely available 3D printing patterns have become the subject of lawsuits, says that the Ghost Gunner draws buyers from across the nation, with about a third coming from the state with the largest assault rifle market in the country: California. He describes his customer base as mostly white men ages 40 to 60 who partake in gunsmithing as a hobby.

But his weapons don’t necessarily require intimate knowledge to assemble – as Andy Greenberg, a writer for Wired, proved last year when he put a Ghost Gunner together in his office.

“I did this mostly alone. I have virtually no technical understanding of firearms and a Cro-Magnon man’s mastery of power tools,” he wrote. “Still, I made a fully metal, functional, and accurate AR-15.”

“To be specific, I made the rifle’s lower receiver; that’s the body of the gun, the only part that US law defines and regulates as a ‘firearm,’” he continued. “All I needed for my entirely legal DIY gunsmithing project was about six hours, a 12-year-old’s understanding of computer software, an $80 chunk of aluminum, and a nearly featureless black 1-cubic-foot desktop milling machine called the Ghost Gunner.”

Wilson says that he ships nearly 200 packages of Ghost Gunner parts a month, sending out more than 2,500 since the project launched. Sales have increased with the anxieties surrounding the presidential election and fears that a predicted Hillary Clinton victory would result in curbed gun rights.

The weapons carry a price tag of around $1,500 – less costly than 3D printing options. Still, it’s easier for criminals to obtain guns by stealing them, Wilson says, arguing that it is unnecessary to make make legislation that restricts homemade gun access.

Therefore, he says, “My response is pure contempt,” he says. “I don’t accept any argument that any California Democrat makes about guns. It can’t be taken seriously.”

Given other loopholes, like those that exempt private sellers without a federal license from doing background checks, some say the ghost guns aren’t positioned to become a more likely way to acquire a gun, or hide it from law enforcement.

“Most of the guns used in crime cannot be traced to the offender through the serial number given our current system even if the first sale of the gun were through a dealer,” Philip Cook, a public policy professor at Duke University, tells the Monitor. “Anybody who doesn’t want the gun traced to them has well established ways now, to which this a new option. It’s not clearly a better or more successful to what already exists.” 

Even if legislatures do pass restrictions on undocumented firearms, enforcement can prove difficult: overly taxing for a police department’s resources, or even impossible when it comes to homemade weapons kept in an individual’s home.

Gun-regulation advocates say that there's no clear answer to reducing the use of undocumented or illegally obtained weapons, but a multi-faceted approach is a place to start. Taking steps to tackle the factors that facilitate crime, including gang- and domestic violence, or drug trafficking, can help to decrease the number of crimes involving guns, whether they be registered, stolen, or homemade. Those methods, while actively prosecuting perpetrators of gun crimes, can deter violence in ways that closing loopholes may not. 

“They try to press on all these different routes,” Dr. Jacobs says. “There is no panacea. There’s a lot of simplistic thinking in this area that just passing another law will solve the problem. It’s becoming more complex. Technology just kind of washes over the whole regulatory system.”

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