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New Report Highlights Deadly Tide of Untraceable, Easily Made “Ghost” Guns Flowing into U.S. Cities

August 9, 2021

Today, the National Police Foundation released a comprehensive report detailing the increasing proliferation of ghost guns, untraceable firearms that have been recovered by law enforcement in growing numbers in recent years. The report, featured in USA Today, includes findings from the National Police Foundation’s interviews with 24 law enforcement agencies about recoveries of ghost guns in their cities and their experience with tracking and tracing ghost guns used in crimes. 

The report — which offers the latest look at just how widespread the problem has become —  comes as the public comment period is coming to a close for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’s (ATF) proposed rule that would, if finalized, curb the rising threat of ghost guns. 

Key points from the report:

  • The untraceable nature of ghost guns, coupled with rapidly growing rates of recovery, pose significant challenges to law enforcement agencies’ ability to appropriately identify, track and process ghost guns and investigate the crimes they are used in. 
    • Nearly half of the police departments surveyed did not have consistent ghost gun recovery statistics for at least the past five years, which can impair trend spotting and risk assessments.
    • Currently, little training and guidance exists for law enforcement on collecting, tracking, and reporting ghost guns and their data.
  • The available data are cause for alarm: in cities across the country, law enforcement agencies are growing increasingly concerned about the threat that ghost guns pose to the safety of their communities.
    • All but two of the 24 agencies interviewed reported encountering at least one ghost gun in the past few years. Of those two dozen agencies, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office recovered the most, with 797 ghost guns recovered as of February 2021.
    • The majority of ghost guns recovered were handguns, and nearly all of the ghost guns recovered had been assembled using nearly complete frames or receivers.
  • Law enforcement agencies have identified trends connecting ghost guns to criminals and people prohibited from having guns. Specifically, New York, Philadelphia, and San Jose police departments noted that ghost guns are primarily being recovered from individuals who are prohibited from possessing firearms.

Some key recommendations from the report:

  • ATF should confirm that the sale of the core components used to build ghost guns, including ghost gun kits, is subject to the same regulations as traditionally manufactured firearms,  including by requiring these components and kits to be marked with serial numbers. Its proposed rule on ghost guns would do just that. 
  • To better understand the role of ghost guns in violent crime, a nationwide standard for reporting the production, sale, and recovery of ghost guns at local, state, and federal levels should be created. 
  • Law enforcement agencies should receive comprehensive training on ghost guns and technical assistance to facilitate the identification and tracking of ghost guns. Strategies and best practices should be developed to facilitate the sharing of ghost guns data and information between and within law enforcement agencies.

Ghost guns are do-it-yourself, homemade guns with parts that can be purchased without a background check or a serial number –– and they have emerged as a weapon of choice for violent criminals, gun traffickers, dangerous extremists, and, generally, people legally prohibited from buying firearms. In a report last May, the Everytown Support Fund examined a sample of more than 100 federal prosecutions involving ghost guns, finding that ghost guns are easier to buy than ever before and are frequently possessed by those prohibited from owning firearms, tied to criminal activity, and used by white supremacists, convicted felons, and minors. A follow-up report issued in December found the online market for untraceable ghost guns has reached unprecedented levels during COVID-19, with dozens of these sellers reporting shipping delays due to “exceptionally high demand.” Despite these record-breaking sales, a recent analysis found that 19 companies that offer ghost gun components, or “80-percent” frames and receivers, received an aggregate of over $8 million in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds.

Key moments in the effort to address the threat of ghost guns:

November 2017: A gunman using a ghost gun kills five people and wounds at least a dozen more in a mass shooting across multiple locations, including an elementary school, in Rancho Tehama, California.

September 2018: A gunman with a ghost gun shoots four people at the software company where he worked in Middleton, Wisconsin.

Throughout 2019: Law enforcement officials recover an estimated 10,000 ghost guns across the country, according to a recent ATF estimate.

November 2019: A student at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, California kills two classmates and wounds three others in a shooting with a ghost gun.

December 2019: Everytown files petition for rulemaking, urging ATF to address the growing threat posed by ghost guns.

May-June 2020: “Boogaloo” movement members used a ghost gun to carry out premeditated attacks at the federal courthouse in Oakland and in Santa Cruz, CA, killing two law enforcement officers.

September 2020: A gunman with a ghost gun ambushes two Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies, seriously wounding both. 

August 2020: Five cities — Syracuse, NY, San Jose, CA, Chicago, IL, and Columbia, SC — join with Everytown to sue ATF over its failure to act on the threat posed by ghost guns and to correct its misinterpretation of federal law. Everytown Law represents the cities in the ongoing suit, which seeks a court order compelling the ATF to take action.

December 2020: Wall Street Journal reports ATF has raided Polymer80, a gun-building kit manufacturer to whom ATF had previously given a green light to distribute its products, a decision challenged in the August 2020 lawsuit.

December 2020: As part of a roadmap outlining ways the Biden-Harris administration can protect the public from gun violence, Everytown urges the administration to act on threat of ghost guns.

February 2021: Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer sues Polymer80, noting that over 700 of the ghost guns LAPD recovered in 2020 were made from Polymer80 parts. Everytown Law is co-counsel in the suit.

April 2021: President Biden, joined by Vice President Harris and Attorney General Garland, announces a series of executive actions to reduce gun violence in the Rose Garden, including calling for a new rule on ghost guns. 

May 2021: ATF announces a proposed rulemaking that would make significant strides in ending the proliferation of ghost guns by regulating their core building blocks — ensuring they are traceable and that licensed dealers conduct a background check before their sale.

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