Ghost guns — No serial number means no background check

Ghost guns — No serial number means no background check

Everything we’ve been working on in California for the last 30 years in gun violence prevention is being undermined by ghost guns.

People who know me know that I’m not usually given to dramatic statements like that. But I’ve had my eye on ghost guns for years, ever since I was in law enforcement. Now, the Glendale, California, office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) says that ghost guns make up 30 percent of its confiscated firearms. Its Los Angeles field office says that they make up 41 percent.

That’s why ghost guns have gone from a blip on my radar screen to the kind of thing that keeps me up at night.

What is a ghost gun? Why is it dangerous?

A ghost gun is an untraceable, unserialized firearm made from a kit.

At the heart of most such kits is an unfinished part known as an “80% receiver,” “80% finished,” “receiver blank,” “80% complete” or “unfinished receiver.” (Note that ATF does not use or endorse the terms I’m using here to describe ghost guns.) A ghost gun is made from that unfinished part, which doesn’t meet the definition of “firearm frame” or “receiver” found in the federal Gun Control Act of 1968. So, among other things, it does not require a serial number, the way a finished part does.

A ghost gun starts out as components that, with readily available tools and minimal mechanical expertise, people can take from that 80 percent to 100 percent. They then have a lethal weapon without a serial number.

A ghost gun is dangerous for a variety of reasons:

  • It’s doesn’t have a serial number.
  • Without a serial number, it cannot be traced when it is used in a crime.
  • It can be easily sold online.
  • Purchasing such a kit doesn’t require a background check, so the people we had in mind when we worked for background-check laws can obtain one.

The marketplace realities of ghost guns are also dangerous. For one thing, a ghost gun kit for a Polymer80 Glock pistol can cost only two-thirds as much as an equivalent, finished, serialized Glock, removing an important barrier to purchase.

For another, the trade in ghost guns effectively pushes out regulated firearm dealers who, by and large, regulate themselves and one another. When those dealers follow the rules, it helps the cause of gun violence prevention. Ghost guns are a way around those rules and around that legitimate sales channel.

What can we do about ghost guns?

Ghost guns are the logical result of a loophole in the law that specifies what does and what does not require a serial number. An unfinished receiver rides straight through that loophole onto somebody’s workbench, then into the hand of a gun owner. For more background, have a look at my presentation, “Ghost Guns — What Are They and Why Should You Care?

In California, the ghost gun trend started as a way to end-run California’s sensible gun laws, particularly the laws on assault weapons. Although California is normally in the vanguard of gun legislation, other states are making admirable progress we need to catch up to:

California’s governor and attorney general have a leadership role to play in dealing with the scourge of ghost guns.

If they don’t play it, then we’ll have to pressure our legislators to play it.


Steve Lindley is the Program Manager for Brady United in California and a 27-year law enforcement veteran.  Before joining Brady, he worked at the California Department of Justice where he served as chief of the Bureau of Firearms and oversaw the Division of Law Enforcement.  He has testified in over 80 firearm-related legislative hearings, collaborated on more than 100 firearm-related bills, and assisted in authoring and implementing California’s landmark Ammunition Background check initiative.  Steve started his career with the National City Police Department.

photo credit: Steve Lindley

GOTV 4 GVP — Getting Out the Vote for Gun Violence Prevention!

GOTV 4 GVP — Getting Out the Vote for Gun Violence Prevention!

What if you opened your ballot this autumn and saw this question:

Shall we eliminate gun violence in America?   □ Yes □ No

For most of us, it would be easy to vote in favor of that, wouldn’t it?

It’s a nice piece of wishful thinking, but things probably won’t go that way.

Occasionally, gun violence prevention (GVP) efforts result in high-profile ballot measures, like California’s Proposition 63, passed in 2016. Prop 63 prohibited the possession of large-capacity ammunition magazines and required certain individuals to pass a background check in order to purchase ammunition. Washington’s Initiative 1639 also passed in 2016; it raised the minimum age to purchase a gun to 21, added background checks and increased waiting periods.

It’s a drag about all the lawsuits that follow. But they’re part of the long haul we’ve signed up for.

Small electoral steps toward gun violence prevention

Still, our voices are making a difference, as they did in the Virginia legislative election in 2019. There was nothing on the ballot as cut-and-dry as “Shall we eliminate gun violence in Virginia?” However, there were other measures (and people) on the ballot that led to electoral victories. As a result, Virginia’s governor and lawmakers have been equipped to pass meaningful, common-sense legislation designed to prevent gun violence.

In fact, where GVP meets the ballot, the most common steps are small ones. That’s why we work to elect GVP-minded judges, city councilmembers, county supervisors, state representatives and even school board members. Gun violence prevention candidates show they will lead with gun safety in mind, whether at the top of the ballot or the bottom.

For that matter, in a year like this, we encourage you to look even deeper than the ballot.

The problem of voting access

We like the Voting Access Saves Lives campaign that our member organization Brady United has kicked off with two youth groups: Team ENOUGH and March for Our Lives. If the way to end gun violence is through votes, then this campaign goes a level deeper: to voting access. For everybody.

As they point out, if you are Black in America, you are 10 times more likely to be the victim of a gun homicide than a white person. Yet an estimated 1 out of every 13 Black Americans cannot vote due to a past conviction — four times the rate of other Americans.

Lengthy polling lines and wait times are most likely to happen in Black and Brown communities. Data shows that voters in majority-Black neighborhoods are more likely to wait longer than those in majority-white neighborhoods. A 2019 study based on smartphone data found that residents of entirely Black neighborhoods waited 29% longer to vote. They were 74% more likely to spend more than 30 minutes at their polling place. And in Arizona’s 2016 primary election, poll closures disproportionately impacted the city’s Latinx population, resulting in almost double the time waiting to vote.

The problem of human nature

Then, there’s that vexing human factor.

“Why doesn’t EVERYbody vote?!” you ask in despair, pulling your hair and worrying about the near future.

For a solid century the League of Women Voters has been guided by that question. More than thinking about it, they’ve been doing something about it. We like the list they’ve published with 100 ways to get ready for election day. Among them:

5. Learn about early and mail-in voting opportunities in your state.

10. Find out who’s funding the candidates running for office on your ballot. (FollowTheMoney.orgis a good resource for this.)

16. Check if you need an ID to vote. Some states require it.

38. Check in with a young person in your life. Are they registered? Do they need help voting?

66. Join the People Powered Fair MapsTMcampaign as a volunteer to stop gerrymandering.

76. Demand action from Congress to protect the 2020 election. Call your Senators today at 1-888-415-4527 to ask them to include $4 billion in funding to secure our elections in the next stimulus package (or fill out our contact form).

The vote: Use it or lose it

Again, with the power of the vote we can change gun laws. Just know that it will take you more than checking a “Yes” box on one ballot.

It’s a long road to get the kind of gun laws you want by voting. Meanwhile, keep in mind the words of the late Rep. John Lewis (D-GA):

“Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful non-violent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.”

John White is a volunteer with SD4GVP.


Open Carry in a Time of Protest and Unrest

Open Carry in a Time of Protest and Unrest

Last weekend, civil unrest erupted during initially peaceful protests in La Mesa, California. A number of businesses were looted and two banks were burned to the ground.

Reports have circulated in social media and in the Times of San Diego about some citizens, understandably worried about the unrest, choosing to undertake their own flavor of community defense. They are making the case for carrying firearms as they move about their cities and neighborhoods.

To some, it looks just like the moment they bought their guns for.

To others — including us — it looks like an excuse to openly carry firearms and probably make the worst of a bad situation.

Laws against openly carrying firearms (“open carry”) in California

Our colleagues at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence summarize open carry laws as follows:

California law generally prohibits people from carrying a loaded firearm (open or concealed) on their person or in a motor vehicle in the following locations:

  • In any public place or on any public street in an incorporated city, or
  • In any public place or on any public street in unincorporated territory if it is unlawful to discharge a weapon in that location (Cal. Penal Code §§ 17030, 25850(a)).

This prohibition is subject to certain exceptions, including those for:

  • A concealed weapons licensee who is carrying a loaded handgun (Cal. Penal Code § 26010);
  • A person who has been granted a license to carry a loaded and exposed handgun if he or she is in the county that granted the license (Cal. Penal Code §§ 26150, 26155); or
  • A person who reasonably believes that his or her person or property or the person or property of another is in immediate, grave danger and that the carrying of the weapon is necessary for the preservation of that person or property. “Immediate” means the brief interval before and after the local law enforcement agency, when reasonably possible, has been notified of the danger and before the arrival of its assistance (Cal. Penal Code § 26030).

Additionally, under PC 417, California law prohibits people from brandishing a loaded or unloaded firearm, except in self-defense. A person commits a misdemeanor when he/she:

  • in the presence of any other person;
  • draws or exhibits a firearm;
  • in a rude, angry, or threatening manner (Cal. Penal Code § 26045).

To be convicted of this crime, the gun brandisher does not need to point the gun; he/she can merely lift a shirt to expose a firearm. The law is designed to discourage anyone from quarreling or threatening another person with a weapon capable of causing serious injury or death.

Law enforcement does not want civilian help

To repeat: California generally bans the open carrying of handguns and long guns.

The idea of ordinary citizens walking or driving around with firearms as a way of “helping” law enforcement agencies and deterring looters is not a good one.

And we’re not the only ones who believe that. In 2016, the police chief of Dallas, Texas, conducted a news conference following a mass shooting. “[I]t’s increasingly challenging when people have AR-15s slung over their shoulder and they’re in a crowd,” he said. “We don’t know who the good guy is versus the bad guy when everyone starts shooting.”

Besides, with Sheriff Gore’s requested deployment of the California National Guard to San Diego, there will be no shortage of violence-deterring firearms in town for the immediate future. The more guns there are, the more likely at least one of them will go off as tension mounts.

Two vigilantes recently posted video to social media claiming that their group has the backing of law enforcement for activity in Santee. The Sheriff’s Department said that it knew of the claims but that “nothing could be further from the truth.” And the mayor of La Mesa, Mark Arapostathis, has reacted to the Facebook-based La Mesa Civil Defense group by making it clear that “the city of La Mesa doesn’t support vigilantes at all.”

We have no disagreement with law-abiding citizens who store their firearms safely and use them responsibly.

But it doesn’t sound as though that’s what’s going on here.

John White is a volunteer with SD4GVP.

Photo credit: Lorie Shaull

Sustainable Development and Gun Violence Prevention

Sustainable Development and Gun Violence Prevention

The globally agreed-upon Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations Association (UNA) are a powerful synergistic agenda addressing the root causes of violence. They emphasize the need to reduce inequalities, promote health and well-being, reduce poverty and hunger, advance gender equality and build strong institutions.

Gun violence in the United States has become widespread, killing and injuring more than 1.2 million U.S. citizens between 2010 and 2020. There is no single way to address this violence, because it is a multi-source, cross-cutting issue.

The San Diego chapter of UNA is a member of San Diegans for Gun Violence Prevention (SD4GVP), a coalition of concerned citizens united to end gun violence in America. In this on-demand webcast, coalition board members Carol Landale and Ron Marcus discuss how local actions reduce gun violence within the larger context of achieving sustainable and inclusive communities.

They also stress that the key to preventing gun violence in America is to get out the vote for leaders who will fight for it. In the current climate, that includes promoting mail-in ballots.


If you’re a gun seller in this pandemic, business is great

If you’re a gun seller in this pandemic, business is great

Guns and ammo are leaping off the shelf. People can’t get enough of them. Customers are lining up outside the door, eager to buy a firearm, you know, just in case things go sideways and they have to defend themselves or their family.

In March, more than 3.7 million total firearm checks were initiated through the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, the best-available proxy for gun sales in the United States.

And, no sooner did talk start about essential and non-essential businesses than gun stores, the NRA and gun buyers made it clear how they define “essential.”

First of all, if you really need that gun, at least store it safely

If you really believe that having a firearm and ammunition is as important right now as, say, rice or eggs or bathroom tissue or tending to your stay-at-home children, then you and I will have to disagree.

But do yourself a favor and learn about safe storage, which will help end family fire and reduce the likelihood of guns going off in the home. Guns stored unsafely in a house with domestic violence are like matches next to a powder keg.

Do your children (or any other people in your home) know where you keep your guns? Can they find them while you’re out of the house? Assume “yes” to both. Get a locked container and keep your guns and ammo in it.

“Please stop shooting. We need the beds.”

Elinore Kaufman observes that gun violence has killed as many people this year as coronavirus.

Elinore could be just another person like me, worried about all the guns and working for gun-violence prevention.

But she’s not. She works in surgical critical care and trauma surgery at the University of Pennsylvania. She’s worried about the number of beds she needs in her intensive care unit. She can’t free up enough beds because gunshot victims are competing with COVID-19 patients for them.

“Neighborhoods and communities that are already at increased risk for violence because of systemic racism and poverty will suffer [because of the pandemic],” she writes, “and violence in those areas may increase even further.” She’s asking for “strategies that range from licensing laws for firearm dealers and purchasers, to red-flag laws, to making data available to researchers, to community-based focused deterrence programs.”

She’s not saying that to reduce gun sales. She’s saying that because she and her staff need the hospital beds.

If a gun-buying spree in a pandemic troubles you, vote for change

Isn’t it ironic that both gun stores and hospitals are considered essential businesses? You can make the case that one feeds the other.

COVID-19 has taken America by surprise; however, the epidemic of gun violence in America has not. And our legislators have never found the political stomach to address it.

Still, I get it: You have other things on your mind during the coronavirus pandemic besides record numbers of firearm purchases. And your confidence in the ability of elected leaders to “insure domestic tranquility” may not be very high as we try to get through this.

So we’ll all have to work this year to elect people who will pass sensible gun laws and appoint sensible judges — people who will behave with public safety in mind when the next crisis hits.

We see a glimmer of hope from Rhode Island, where the governor extended the time period from seven days to thirty days for police departments to conduct background checks for concealed weapons and firearms. And a coalition of 16 Democratic U.S. senators is expressing concerns about guns ending up in the hands of prohibited purchasers.

More guns don’t make people safer. Least of all from coronavirus.

More people with more guns cooped up for longer. What could go wrong?

Again, if you know people who really need to buy a gun right now, urge them to store it safely. And don’t let your child play at their house until they do.

And if you’re overwhelmed right now and have to move gun-violence prevention to the back burner, go ahead. We’ll help you make sure that it doesn’t fall off the stove entirely. After all, if we don’t keep raising the issue — even during a pandemic — then who will?

John White is a volunteer with San Diegans for Gun Violence Prevention.

photo credit: Seth Anderson

Pandemic Buying, and Safe Storage of Guns and Ammo

Pandemic Buying, and Safe Storage of Guns and Ammo

“It’s really getting tough out there. The shelves are empty. Nobody has rice or chicken or milk or even toilet paper. I’m really worried about how much longer this is gonna go on.”

“You think that’s bad? I went shopping today and all I could find was .45 caliber and .38 Special. For the 12-gauge, I couldn’t find buckshot, only birdshot. And AR-15s are flying off the shelves, even the really cheap ones.”


Since the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., gun sales have soared.  On March 16 the National Shooting Sports Foundation reported that the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) has been running roughly double the number of checks it was running over the same period in 2019. In San Diego, Poway Weapons and Gear reported that over the last week their sales of firearms and ammunition have doubled.

A reminder about safe firearm storage

At SD4GVP, we’ve been urging our elected officials to post information on their websites and in social media to remind both new and experienced gun owners about safe storage of firearms in the home. With more children home from school and mounting anxiety over coronavirus, the risk of suicides, unintentional shootings and even homicides is greatly increased.

The following statistics reflect the toll of gun violence in the best of times:

Citizens are turning to firearms as a way of protecting themselves, their families and their property in the coronavirus pandemic. We believe that reminding them of state and local laws about safe storage of firearms in the home could save lives, especially in the homes of first-time gun owners.

With more firearms comes more responsibility

California’s Child Access Prevention (CAP) laws hold a person criminally liable if he or she stores or leaves a gun where a child can access it. San Diego’s Safe Storage Ordinance takes the California law a step further by specifying how firearms must be stored. Ordinances similar to San Diego’s, were also adopted in Del Mar, Solana Beach and Encinitas.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation and all gun-violence prevention organizations provide the following guidelines for safe firearm storage:

  • Unloaded firearms should be stored in a locked cabinet, safe, gun vault or storage case inaccessible to children.
  • Ammunition should be stored in a locked location separate from firearms.

That’s why we urge our elected officials to remind their constituents to safely store their firearms. We are promoting the message of safe storage on our own social media and are willing to promote messages from city, state and national authorities.

Follow us on Facebook and Instagram. And encourage your fellow citizens to store their firearms safely, whether during a pandemic or afterwards.

John White is a volunteer with San Diegans for Gun Violence Prevention.

Photo credit: Dan Keck