Ghost guns have recently become a hot-button topic in the media due to proposed gun control legislation. These untraceable and undetectable weapons have become the target of criticism for their potential to bypass certain prohibitions and regulations enforced on standard firearms. There is also misinformation circulating about ghost guns being used to commit crimes that is more reminiscent of Hollywood fiction than fact.
Ghost guns are far more innocuous than the media makes them out to be.
Understanding the term ghost gun and the laws surrounding their manufacture and ownership can help you know your rights if you own one of these DIY weapons.
What are Ghost Guns?
What are ghost guns, exactly? Former California State Senator Kevin de León first coined the term ghost gun during a press conference at the State Capitol in Sacramento on January 13, 2014.
In a now-infamous excerpt, de León attempted to explain the dangers of unregulated, unregistered firearms to garner support for California Bill SB808, a bill intended to regulate their manufacture.
The speech is widely panned for de León’s inaccurate or awkward gun terminology, such as “thirty-caliber clip,” “thirty magazine clip,” or the gun’s supposed capability of “dispersing 30 bullets in half a second,” drawing sharp criticism and mockery from the firearms community and the internet at large.
Definition of a Ghost Gun
California Bill SB808 proposed numerous regulations surrounding firearms that do not possess a distinguishing number or mark of identification, such as a serial number, which brought homemade guns and the federal regulations surrounding their manufacture and possession under the spotlight.
According to federal law, under the Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA), all firearms manufactured or imported in the United States must possess a conspicuous, unique serial number, either engraved, stamped, or cast directly into the receiver.
However, this clause only applies to firearms manufactured or imported by licensed individuals or companies (holders of a Federal Firearms License).
Private individuals do not need a license to manufacture firearms exclusively for personal use, as long as that firearm is not regulated under the National Firearms Act of 1934 (what the industry refers to as “NFA items”).
In turn, homemade firearms built for personal use do not need to possess a serial number, as long as that firearm remains in the hands of its original maker. If you wish to sell or transfer your homemade weapon, the GCA’s provisions go into effect, and you must first inscribe a serial number according to the ATF’s guidelines.
In other words, there is no agreed-upon legal definition for ghost guns. The term is a moniker most frequently used to describe a privately-made, unserialized firearm.
Legal Status of Ghost Guns
You may be asking yourself, “Are ghost guns illegal?” The legal status of ghost guns depends on many factors, which can be challenging to understand.
Under federal law, a ghost gun is generally legal to own and possess, just like any other firearm. The legal requirements are the same as with other guns: The owner must not be a Prohibited Person, and the weapon must not be regulated under specific federal gun control laws.
According to 18 U.S. Code, paragraph 922(g), a prohibited person is any one of the following:
A person convicted of any crime punishable by over one year in prison. Or an individual convicted of domestic violence.
A fugitive from justice.
An unlawful user of a controlled substance.
A person legally declared mentally defective or committed to a mental institution.
An illegal immigrant.
Any dishonorably discharged person from any branch of the military.
A person who has renounced their U.S. citizenship.
A person subjected to a restraining order for stalking, harassing, or threatening a romantic partner or their children.
Prohibited persons may not own, receive, or transport firearms and ammunition of any kind, including ghost guns.
Because a ghost gun is effectively a homemade firearm manufactured by an unlicensed individual, a ghost gun is illegal if it is any of the following:
A machine gun
A firearm designed to be undetectable by airport security devices like metal detectors
A short-barreled shotgun (less than 26” long overall or less than 18” of barrel length)
A short-barreled rifle (less than 26” long overall or less than 16” of barrel length)
A weapon defined as Any Other Weapon (AOW)
Most states do not possess specific legal wording regulating the possession of homemade firearms. However, an increasing number of states have passed or considered passing such legislation, typically in response stolen firearms with serial numbers filed off, rather than actual ghost guns used in crimes.
As of August 2021, five states plus the District of Columbia impose restrictions or bans on such weapons: California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Washington.
Since July 1, 2018, it is unlawful for anyone in California to possess firearms with no serial numbers or equivalent unique identification marks, making ghost guns effectively illegal.
California gun builders and manufacturers may not manufacture a firearm without a serial number, even for guns solely intended for personal use. In addition, the California Department of Justice is the sole entity that can deliver serial numbers for firearms in California.
Any person or company intending to manufacture a firearm must first apply to the California DOJ for a serial number, then inscribe it to that firearm within 10 days of issuance according to the DOJ’s specific requirements.
Governor Ned Lamont signed HB 7219 into law in 2019. Part of this legislation makes it illegal for anyone in Connecticut to own or manufacture a firearm without a unique serial number or equivalent identification mark, effectively banning ghost guns.
Similar to California law, firearm manufacturers must apply to the Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection for a serial number.
In November 2018, Governor Phil Murphy signed S-2465 into law, making it illegal to possess, buy, sell, or manufacture firearms with no serial numbers, firearms designed to be undetectable, and 3D-printed guns, effectively outlawing ghost guns from the state.
New Jersey is also the only state with a ghost gun ban that also imposes restrictions on possessing data or information on how to 3D-print firearms.
Although the State of New York does not ban the manufacture of homemade firearms in general, a 2019 bill made it illegal to make, sell, transport, or possess specific types of ghost guns, namely 3D-printed guns, 80% receivers, and guns made from these 80% receivers.
HB 1739 was signed into law in 2019 by Governor Jay Inslee. This legislation targets firearms deemed “undetectable or untraceable.”
A firearm is undetectable if it is less visible to a standard walk-through metal detector than 3.7 ounces of stainless steel. Such guns are illegal to possess, buy, sell, or make.
A firearm made after January 1, 2019, is untraceable if it does not feature a serial number. Untraceable guns are illegal to manufacture with the intent to sell, targeting licensed dealers and retailers.
However, the law stops short of banning these firearms altogether. They remain legal to own and manufacture solely for private use under state law.
What Do Ghost Guns Look Like?
Under the legal definition, either a complete firearm, the frame, or receiver legally counts as a firearm. All other gun parts are typically unregulated. Most ghost guns are, in reality, receivers or frames designed to accept standard gun parts.
Ghost guns typically fall into two categories: 3D-printed firearms and 80% receiver kits. For example, a ghost gun kit for Glock pistols consists of a 3D-printed or 80% Glock receiver compatible with standard Glock parts.
Although most ghost guns are 9mm platforms, similar kits for other platforms exist, such as ghost gun 1911 kits for homemade 1911 pistols or ghost AR-15 receivers.
A 3D-printed firearm is any firearm (or firearm receiver) that was manufactured using 3D printing technology. 3D ghost guns are typically receivers made entirely from plastic using a 3D printer.
Image Source: BushcraftUSA Forum
The first fully functional 3D-printed firearm was the Liberator, a single-shot .380 ACP pistol designed by Cody Wilson (founder of Defense Distributed). Since then, other companies have built on the original concept and developed more advanced models compatible with commonly available parts.
80% Receiver Guns
An 80% receiver is a generic term for an unfinished receiver. 80% receivers do not legally count as firearms, as they require additional drilling or machining before they become functional.
Effectively, an 80% receiver is a DIY project; the end-user must finish it themselves by manufacturing a block of plastic or metal into a functional gun part.
Know Your Ghost Gun Ownership Rights
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