Ghost Guns: What They Are, and Why They Are an Issue Now

WASHINGTON — Facing Republican opposition to the passage of gun control legislation, President Biden on Thursday announced a set of initial steps he could take on his own to address the epidemic of gun violence.

The most significant proposal was a crackdown on the proliferation of so-called ghost guns, or firearms that are assembled from kits and do not carry serial numbers.

“I want to see these kits treated as firearms under the Gun Control Act,” Mr. Biden said.

Here’s what you need to know about the weapons the Biden administration is targeting and why.

Traditional firearms are made by licensed companies and then bought from licensed gun dealers. All guns manufactured in the United States, as well as those imported from abroad, are legally required to have serial numbers that are typically displayed on the back of the frame.

In contrast, a ghost gun is manufactured in parts, and can be assembled at the home of an unlicensed buyer. There is no need to pass a background check to obtain the components of a ghost gun. They are sold online as D.I.Y. kits, and typically shipped as “80 percent receivers.” That means the gun is 80 percent complete, and buyers have to assemble the final 20 percent themselves.

The key selling point for many buyers is that ghost guns do not have serial numbers, the critical piece of information that law enforcement agencies use to trace the gun from the manufacturer to the gun dealer to the original buyer. Ghost guns are untraceable and because of how they are sold — as parts that need to be assembled — under current rules, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives does not treat them as it would traditional firearms.

It’s easy and relatively inexpensive.

According to a report by Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun violence prevention organization, an AR-15 build kit costs as low as $345.

The sales pitches usually promise little work for the buyer. One online purveyor assured that “building time doesn’t take too long,” adding, “Within an hour or two, you should be breaking it in at the range.”

The kits usually come with directions on how to finish the gun or link to YouTube tutorials. Typically, the only tool needed is a drill and the kits are often sold with the drill bits necessary to complete the frame.

Many ghost guns are also sold with a “jig,” which fits around the frame or receiver and helps turn the project into something like “gun assembly for dummies.” One site said the jig could be used to complete a gun “in under 15 minutes with excellent results.”

According to Everytown for Gun Safety, the top five instructional videos on YouTube for building a ghost gun have drawn more than three million views.

Ghost guns aren’t new, but they are a growing problem. Even though kits to assemble guns have been sold since the 1990s, the market did not really take off until around 2009. At the time, firearm sellers in California began offering unfinished receivers for the AR-15 and AK-47 series of guns, in an attempt to circumvent the state’s assault weapons laws, according to T. Christian Heyne, the vice president for policy at the Brady United Against Gun Violence organization.

The problem of ghost guns did not become well known until 2013, when one was linked to a shooting at Santa Monica College in California, which killed six people, including the gunman.

Sales of ghost guns started to rise substantially around 2016, as people began buying kits to recreate a firearm based on the Glock 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol.

There is no way to know how many ghost guns are in circulation because they do not have serial numbers and no background check is required to purchase them.

But data shows that their prevalence appears to be growing every year, especially in states like California that have strict gun laws.

According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or A.T.F., law enforcement recovered about 10,000 ghost guns in 2019. In cities, those numbers are rising at what the authorities say is an alarming rate every year. Proponents of stricter gun laws have been pushing for action on ghost guns to address the growing problem before it becomes a full-blown catastrophe.

In Philadelphia, for instance, 250 ghost guns were recovered in 2020, up from 99 in 2019. In Baltimore, 126 ghost guns were recovered last year, up from 29 in 2019.

“Forty-one percent, so almost half our cases we’re coming across, are these ‘ghost guns,’” Carlos A. Canino, the special agent in charge of the A.T.F. Los Angeles field division, told ABC News last year.

Some mass shootings have been linked to ghost guns, like the 2019 shooting at a high school in California, where a 16-year-old killed two students. A ghost gun was also linked to a 2017 rampage in which a gunman killed his wife and four others in Northern California.

But analysts said that ghost guns were not disproportionately linked to mass shootings. The bigger issue is that they are disproportionately affecting day-to-day gun violence in communities of color across the country, gun safety groups said.