‘Ghost guns’ are not currently regulated in most US states

“Ghost guns” are under the federal government’s eye as the Biden administration seeks to impose new regulations.
Credit: AP
FILE - This Nov. 27, 2019, file photo shows "ghost guns" on display at the headquarters of the San Francisco Police Department in San Francisco. Families of those killed and wounded in a rural California shooting rampage in 2017 are suing manufacturers and sellers of "ghost gun" kits that provide easy-to-assemble firearm parts that make it difficult to track or regulate owners. (AP Photo/Haven Daley, File)

In the wake of mass shootings in Georgia and Colorado in March, President Joe Biden on Thursday announced six executive orders aimed at reducing gun violence in the United States. Among the gun control measures: Biden said the Justice Department will “issue a proposed rule to help stop the proliferation of ‘ghost guns’” in the next 30 days.

Claims on social media about “ghost guns” have been far-ranging, from one claim that they don’t exist to another saying there are few legal barriers stopping people from getting “ghost guns.”  

THE QUESTION

Are “ghost guns” regulated in the United States?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

“Ghost guns” are unregulated in most states, except for New York, New Jersey, Washington, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Virginia and California, where local laws subject them to the same scrutiny as other firearms. 

WHAT WE FOUND

A “ghost gun” is a firearm that doesn’t have a serial number and therefore can’t be traced. These weapons are mostly sold through kits “which include all of the parts and often the equipment necessary to build these weapons at home,” The Brady Center’s website explains. 

As they’re sold by parts, not as a finalized weapon, these items can be purchased without a background check and can be assembled in a short time. 

“When these firearms turn up at crime scenes, they often cannot be traced by law enforcement due to the lack of a serial number,” a briefing from the White House reads. 

Biden hopes to change the regulations around “ghost guns,” as they are not federally considered firearms.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Arms and Explosives (ATF) defines a firearm as “any weapon (including a starter gun) which will or is designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive.” 

“Ghost guns” do not fall under this definition, which allows the sales of the parts in most states, usually starting with an 80% receiver, an “item that some may believe has not yet reached a stage of manufacture that meets the definition of ‘firearm frame’ or ‘receiver’ according to the Gun Control Act (GCA),” the ATF explains on its website.

While “ghost guns” aren’t considered firearms at the federal level, some states have created their own laws to determine legality and regulations around “ghost guns.” One example is California, where “ghost guns” are considered firearms. Local law requires individuals, 21 and older, to apply for a serial number before assembling one, and also be subjected to a background check.

New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Virginia, Washington and Connecticut share similar legislation that prohibits the manufacture, possession, sale, transfer and transport of undetectable or untraceable arms, which covers the description of a “ghost gun.”

Biden wants “ghost guns” to be redefined under the ATF’s Gun Control Act, which he said would “require that the seller and manufacturers make the key parts with serial numbers and run background checks on the buyers when they walk in to buy that package.”

This would mean that once “ghost guns” are considered firearms, the remaining states without regulations towards these weapons would have to subject them to the same scrutiny as a regular firearm. 

The president also asked the Justice Department to release a new annual report, as a way to help policymakers “address firearms trafficking as it is today, not what it was yesterday.”

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