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Executive Summary: GHOST GUNS: AN EVOLVING THREAT

Updated: May 23

Anastasios Giannakis, Alissa Perri, Jean Scott, Weapons/Tactics (W/T) Team

Week of Monday, May 10, 2021


Unlicensed homemade firearms, also known as “ghost guns,” have recently garnered much media attention. While the manufacturing of untraceable homemade firearms is not a new phenomenon, ghost guns are becoming increasingly easy to produce in the US. Technological innovation and loopholes within Federal legislation are making it relatively easy for individuals, such as criminals and mentally unstable persons, who have been legally prohibited from having access to firearms, to manufacture ghost guns.[1] If appropriate actions are not sufficiently supported by legislation, ghost guns are likely to proliferate and continue to be used in the rising quantity of mass shootings. Despite this clear threat, the political polarization around firearm legislation is a major obstacle in addressing this issue due to the argument that restricting ghost guns directly violates US citizens' second amendment right to keep and bear arms.


AR-15 Receivers: parts legally considered to be firearms[2]


US President Biden began his first presidential term facing an increase of media coverage on mass shootings in the US. To address the gun violence, Biden signed six executive orders, which are also aimed at addressing the proliferation of ghost guns.[3] Ghost guns are homemade firearms that are not registered with the government, making them almost impossible to track. Ghost guns pose a unique threat to national security, as it allows criminals and terrorists to operate with a greater ability to remain undetected.


Ghost guns also pose a significant threat because people who are prohibited from acquiring a firearm, such as criminals or mentailly unstable individuals, can potentially manufacture one of these weapons due to weaknesses in US firearm legislation. According to Federal law, firearms receivers or frames are legally considered to be firearms, and are thus the only parts subject to regulation.[4] While a prospective owner would have to pass a background check to acquire these weapon parts, this does not apply to partially completed receivers. These receivers are not subject to Federal regulation and can be commercially sold without serial numbers. Those who acquire these partially completed receivers can legally manufacture a firearm without drawing attention from the Federal government or local law enforcement. Subsequently, these weapons can potentially be used in acts of violence, or illegally sold to malicious actors, such as criminal gangs or extremists, who may use them for their own ends. One particularly deadly incident occurred in 2017 when an individual prohibited from owning firearms went on a shooting spree utilizing a ghost gun, which he was able to obtain the firearm parts through online resources to kill his wife and four other persons in California, US.[5]


Until recently, creating ghost guns was a difficult and time consuming endeavor. The invention of 3D printing technology significantly simplified the weapon creation process, decreasing the time and effort needed to manufacture firearms.[6] The ghost guns created with 3D printers are called “downloadable guns,” and since they are constructed with polymer, they are undetectable by metal detectors or x-ray scanners.[7] Further technological developments, such as the Ghost Gunner, a computer numeric control (CNC) mill developed by Defense Distributed, streamlined the process further.[8] The Ghost Gunner is designed to finish a partially completed firearm receiver in the space of hours with some assistance from its user. As technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, so will it become easier to manufacture these homemade firearms. Subsequently, this increases the probability of illegal ghost gun development amongst the public and will likely be potentially used in criminal or terrorist acts, such as the previously mentioned mass shooting that occurred in California in 2017.


The threat of ghost guns has to be adequately addressed by the US government and law enforcement. One critical way is by addressing the weakness in Federal legislation. Ideally, US Congress should pass legislation that requires frames and receivers - even incomplete ones - to be labeled with serial numbers. This will mandate ghost gun manufacturers and distributors to go in person before a federally licensed dealer and undergo the same background check as licensed distributors. Recent efforts, such as the legislation proposed by democrats at the beginning of President Biden's term, represent a step in the right direction.


On May 11, 2021, US Democrats reintroduced legislation, titled the “Untraceable Firearms Act,” to ban ghost guns. This legislation is another attempt to restrict access to untraceable firearms without serial numbers that include unfinished frames and receivers. If passed, this law will require manufacturers and distributors who sell the homemade kits to operate under the same regulations as official firearms distributors with serial numbers and licenses. However, even if the ghost gun is not obtained and run through a background check by law enforcement, it would still be difficult to regulate and minimize the threat of illegal manufacturing because the homemade kits or 3-D printing do not implement serial numbers. This leads to a loophole within regulations that is difficult to address. The purpose of the legislation is to trace illegal guns used by criminals while protecting law-abiding Americans' rights to own a firearm, not to directly identify who is manufacturing and distributing the firearm. [9]


The legislation proposals may not burden law-abiding citizens who want to build weapons, but they would make it difficult for convicted domestic criminals, extremist groups, and illegal arms dealers to obtain detectable firearms. In addition to the proposed legislation, a second approach would be to administratively address the problem of ghost guns through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Under ATF’s revised directions, unfinished receivers that are about to be completed, should be designated as real firearms and should be subjected to the same legislative regulations.[10]


Legislation serving to regulate ghost guns would bring US legislation on the weapons closer to international standards, and mitigate the threat that they pose. However, due to firearm legislation being a polarized issue in US politics, and the fact that the proposed legislative amendment is taking place in the context of significant efforts to improve firearms regulation in the US overall, it is uncertain if such laws would successfully be passed. However, should such legislative action occur, far right-extremists may consider it a violation of their conditional rights, which could lead to terrorist attacks. Authorities must be on alert for these threats, and able to take appropriate action if necessary.


The Counterterrorism Group monitors the proliferation of weapons, including ghost guns, and seeks to prevent their illicit production and trafficking, with the ultimate aim of deterring their use in terrorist attacks and criminal behavior. The Weapons and Tactics team researches and keeps records of relevant terrorist and criminal incidents in an attempt to detect and analyze the weapons and tactics of perpetrators, and potentially deter further acts of violence. CTG will report any situations pertinent to US homeland security, and will attempt to cover any intelligence gaps to aid with the decision making of US policymakers.

________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1] I Made an Untraceable AR-15 'Ghost Gun' in My Office—and It Was Easy, Wired, June 2015, https://www.wired.com/2015/06/i-made-an-untraceable-ar-15-ghost-gun/

[2] Ghost guns by Mitch Barrie licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

[3] Biden Administration Announces Executive Action On Gun Control, Black Information Network, April 2021, https://www.binnews.com/content/2021-04-08-biden-to-sign-six-executive-orders-on-gun-control/

[4] Frequently Asked Questions About Ghost Guns, Center for American Progress, April 2021, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/guns-crime/reports/2021/04/02/497817/frequently-asked-questions-ghost-guns/

[5] California rampage puts spotlight on homemade ‘ghost guns’, AP News, November 2017, ttps://apnews.com/article/5d590746d692431281249fe4d6d60695

[6] I Made an Untraceable AR-15 'Ghost Gun' in My Office—and It Was Easy, Wired, June 2015, https://www.wired.com/2015/06/i-made-an-untraceable-ar-15-ghost-gun/

[7] Untraceable: The Rising Specter of Ghost Guns, Everytown Support Fund, May 2020, https://everytownresearch.org/report/the-rising-specter-of-ghost-guns/#policy-solutions-and-recommendations

[8] I Made an Untraceable AR-15 'Ghost Gun' in My Office—and It Was Easy, Wired, June 2015, https://www.wired.com/2015/06/i-made-an-untraceable-ar-15-ghost-gun/

[9] Democrats reintroduce legislation to ban ‘ghost guns’, The Hill, May 2021, https://thehill.com/homenews/senate/552988-democrats-reintroduce-legislation-to-ban-ghost-guns

[10] Frequently Asked Questions About Ghost Guns, Center for American Progress, April 2021, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/guns-crime/reports/2021/04/02/497817/frequently-asked-questions-ghost-guns/


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