What’s the problem with ghost guns?

Why cracking down on these untraceable, undetectable weapons will make DC safer.

There are too many guns flooding our city, and far too many loopholes that enable those floodgates to remain open.

Across the country and in the District, a common culprit has become clear: ghost guns. That’s why my office has been going after manufacturers to stop them from selling to District residents and calling for further action to crack down on these dangerous weapons.

The District has some of the strictest gun laws in the country. But most guns in DC are brought in from other states that have less restrictive laws, which means we need everyone across the country to do their part to stop the flow of illegal guns, including ghost guns.

As the District and cities across the country face increases in violent crime, we need short and long-term strategies, as well as local and national efforts, to make our communities safer. To do that, we need to hold those accountable who are committing crimes and to work to prevent crimes from happening in the first place. My office continues to take this approach to improving public safety, and it’s clear a critical step in those efforts includes reducing the flow of illegal guns into our communities.

But let’s back up.

What are ghost guns?

“Ghost guns” are untraceable guns sold without background checks and serial numbers. They are often sold in “ghost gun kits” and then assembled by the buyer. Some of them are made of materials that are undetectable by metal detectors. And anyone can buy them — including those who are prohibited from buying other guns. That makes it a lot more difficult to track down to the people buying and using these guns as they are essentially anonymous and able to buy ghost guns in the shadows.

Federal law requires all guns sold to comply with basic safety measures that allow them to be traced if they are used for a crime. But during the Trump administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco (ATF) interpreted the law not to apply to weapon parts like handgun frames, semi-automatic receivers, and firearm kits. That means they can be sold freely online and assembled in people’s homes. One Los Angeles-based ATF agent compared it to assembling IKEA furniture.

Allowing parts of guns to be sold anonymously online is huge loophole in federal law — and certain manufacturers and gun dealers have eagerly exploited the opportunity to sell the parts for guns without taking simple safety measures. Companies have even advertised them that way, appealing to those who want to use them for criminal activity.

How fast are ghost guns spreading?

Ghost guns are found more and more in the District. And this increase is continuing even though my office sued to stop a leading manufacturer of ghost guns from selling in DC and despite DC Council passing a ban on these weapons in 2020. The Metropolitan Police Department has recovered a steadily increasing number of ghost guns, from three in 2017 to 263 in 2020. That represents 13% of all guns recovered, and not surprisingly, we know that ghost guns are being used in serious crimes, including homicides.

That trend continued in 2021:

Ghost guns are not just a DC problem — they’re being found more often across the country. Police departments in New York, Philadelphia and New Jersey all reported recovering more of them in 2021 than ever before. In California, nearly a third of guns seized in in 2019 were ghost guns, and the rate they’re found is skyrocketing. The Los Angeles Times reported that, during the first half of 2021, the Los Angeles Police Department confiscated 863 ghost guns, four times as many as the 217 it seized during the same period in 2020.

In the District, we have some of the country’s strongest gun laws, but because guns don’t respect District borders, we need a cohesive national effort to crack down on these untraceable and undetectable firearms.

What are we doing about ghost guns?

We know our efforts at the Office of the Attorney General are an important piece of a much larger effort to combat gun violence and crime. That’s why we need proactive, comprehensive action at the federal and local levels. And we’ll keep pushing for that action by:

  • Holding ghost gun manufacturers accountable in the courts. My office was the first attorney general to sue Polymer80 — a leading manufacturer of ghost guns in the United States and the company that manufactured most of the deadly ghost guns recovered in DC — for illegally advertising and selling them to DC consumers. More than 80% of the ghost guns recovered by DC police since 2017 were made by Polymer80, including guns linked to nine homicides. As a result of our lawsuit, Polymer80 has stopped selling to District consumers.
Kate Konopka, Deputy Attorney General of our office’s Public Advocacy Division, spoke about this lawsuit during a DC Council hearing on February 10, 2022
  • Pushing for more states to take action against ghost gun manufacturers. Last year, I joined a White House meeting with several other state attorneys general to reinforce how state attorneys general can also take strong action to help stop gun violence by holding gun manufacturers accountable when they violate state and local laws, just like we in the District are doing with our Polymer80 lawsuit. Several state attorneys general have since filed similar lawsuits.
  • Pressing the Biden administration to close loopholes for ghost guns. We also called on the U.S. Department of Justice to finalize federal regulations that would make clear ghost guns are firearms under federal law and help address the epidemic of gun violence. If approved, it would require retailers to run background checks before selling key ghost gun parts, which can be readily converted to a functioning weapon. It would also require those parts to include serial numbers.
  • Calling for Congress to enable state attorneys general to take further actions. We called for Congress to repeal the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which would allow state attorneys general to use their full range of enforcement powers to hold gun manufacturers responsible for creating a public nuisance.
  • Urging federal gun safety legislation. We’ll also continue to press Congress to pass aggressive gun safety reform to help stop the flow of guns into the District and communities across the country by closing loopholes and mandating background checks. This federal legislation is sorely needed.

We’re already seeing encouraging steps as others are following our lead. Maryland is considering legislation to ban ghost guns. And the Biden administration recently announced a new initiative to crack down on ghost guns at the national level by bringing federal charges against people who use ghost guns.

There’s no question that ghost guns are dangerous, or that they are being used for crime. Help me spread the word by sharing this post and calling on government and industry leaders to do their part to stop the flow of ghost guns. Together, we can help make our communities safer by limiting the flow of ghost guns into the District.