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

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