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What makes a gun a gun?
That may sound like a dumb question, but when it comes to "ghost guns," it is not.
Ghost guns are firearms that you can assemble at home, either from parts and kits purchased online or via a 3D printer.
They shoot just like traditional firearms. But, unlike traditional firearms, they are not required to display serial numbers. This makes them untraceable and, therefore, more attractive to criminals or those who the law prevents from having guns.
They exist due to a loophole in federal firearms regulation. The parts used to make them are classified as components, not guns. This means buyers don't need to go through background checks or register the gun.
No wonder, then, that they are proliferating — especially in areas of the country, like California, where gun laws are stricter.
Last October, the Los Angeles Police Department reported that the use of ghost guns was an "epidemic." Since 2017, the number of ghost guns recovered by the LAPD rose by 400%.
In San Mateo County, District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe estimates that 30 to 40 percent of guns seized by police now are ghost guns.
In response, several cities in California have enacted ordinances banning ghost guns within their borders. On Jan. 18, Oakland became the most recent, joining Berkeley, Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco. In addition, San Diego County passed an ordinance banning ghost guns on Jan. 25.
These ordinances, which ban the guns, are stricter measures than the restrictive law California already has in place. That law, which went into effect in 2018, requires (among other things) that self-assembled firearms contain a serial number.
According to the Giffords Law Center, nine other states plus the District of Columbia restrict ghost guns in varying degrees. In Nevada, however, a state judge struck down a law passed in early 2021 on the grounds that it was too vague in establishing standards for enforcement. The state has appealed that decision.
In addition, some cities have acted. Early last year, for instance, Philadelphia passed an ordinance banning ghost guns.
Most cities, however, are limited in enacting restrictive gun laws because most states have firearms preemption laws that say municipal laws can't be tougher than state laws. The Giffords Law Center says that 42 states fall into that category.
One of them is Pennsylvania, where state law preempts Philadelphia from creating and enforcing its own gun laws like last year's ghost-gun ordinance. In response, Philadelphia sued the state last October, contending that it should be allowed to take local action to deal with the escalation of gun violence there. That case is still making its way through the courts.
Last year, the Colorado General Assembly became the first state legislature to repeal a firearms preemption statute, and in January Denver enacted a ban on ghost guns.
Meanwhile, national action on ghost guns remains a possibility. Last May, the U.S. Department of Justice proposed a rule aimed at holding ghost guns to the same standards as normal guns. Under federal law, hobbyists are free to make their own guns, but licensed dealers would need to ensure that all homemade guns they sell display serial numbers.
Predictably, however, that proposal has encountered significant pushback from gun-rights proponents.
The National Rifle Association, for instance, says: "Criminals are not interested in costly equipment and the time-consuming and laborious process of manufacturing their own firearms like hobbyists when they can simply remove serial numbers by defacing crime guns."
It is strange, then, that many law enforcement professionals don't share that lack of concern. The International Association of Chiefs of Police, for instance, issued a resolution stating that the availability of ghost guns "increases the risk that dangerous people, including felons, domestic abusers, and other people prohibited from possessing firearms under federal law, as well as terrorists and criminals around the world, will evade background check requirements and obtain a firearm."
DOJ's posted its proposed rule in the Federal Register in May, and the 90-day comment period ended in August.
To date, however, DOJ has not acted.
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