Note from Emily-
I am only as good of a journalist as my sources. As I wrote in my recent story on ghost guns, I have a great source in a large police department who has given me valuable information on the recent increase of criminals using these types of firearms. I’m going to call him Sgt. Roger Murtaugh. After I published that story, Murtaugh saw that I was struggling to define ghost guns because the government, law enforcement, the industry and the public all use the term differently. He took the time to write out this email (below) to help me understand better. Murtaugh is unique in that he is both well informed and able to write in a way that puts a complicated concept into language that can be understood by civilians. I wanted to share it directly with subscribers, but I didn't want to take credit. I asked him if I could share it under a pen name since he’s on the force. He agreed and the following is the first of hopefully many guest posts from experts.
What is a Ghost Gun?
by Sgt. Roger Murtaugh
It appears people get confused with what's legal, and what's not vs. what's a ghost gun, and what's not. To add to that, what's a firearm and what's not, according to the ATF.
I'm not all knowing, and if I don't know, I will tell you I don't know. But I've been in law enforcement for 30 years. I spent years at the range teaching recruits and veterans, day in and day out and answering firearm related questions.
I am going to break it down as best I can. Here we go.
It's always been legal to manufacture a weapon on your own with no serial number. If an individual doesn’t apply a serial number and register it in any kind of way (and few people do), it's what the politicians call a “ghost gun”, as it's untraceable. It's perfectly legal, but it's still a ghost gun.
That wasn't a problem in the past because few people had the time, materials, and skills to do it, so no one really cared.
Then along came things like the flat metal AK-47 lower receivers. It is a flat piece of metal that is intended to be bent into shape to form the lower half of an AK-47.
This is the part on a regular AK-47 in which the serial number would be applied, but because it is less than 80% complete, it doesn't meet the definition of a firearm by ATF standards, and therefore does not require a serial number. The ATF doesn't care about the remaining parts being serialized. The ATF considers the frame or receiver (the part that will house the trigger, hammer, fire selector, disconnector, etc.) a firearm.
So someone goes into a store or online and buys this piece of metal. (Here is one for sale online.) They bring it home, bend it, drill any holes required to make a 100% finished lower receiver. It still doesn't have any other parts added, but it just became a firearm by ATF definition. That means it cannot be legally transferred any further unless this is done by a licensed manufacturer, but we are talking about individuals here.
It still doesn't have or require a serial number; therefore, it just became a ghost gun. It's still perfectly legal for the owner to add the trigger, hammer, fire selector, barrel, etc, so long as the individual doesn’t transfer it to another person. These were never a big deal because it takes some time and skill, and predominantly, only gun enthusiasts took the time to do so.
There are similar items for an AR-15 like an unfinished aluminum lower receiver. Just like the AK, this is the part that is serialized on AR-15 type rifles. The one shown in the link here is less than 80% complete, therefore as it sits, it is not a firearm by ATF definition because it cannot receive all the parts intended, and therefore does not require a serial number. As it sits, it's nothing more than a chunk of aluminum.
Someone purchases it. They mill out the area where the trigger, hammer, sear, disconnector, and fire selector will eventually go and drill a few holes. It just became a firearm by ATF definition and it just became a ghost gun because it doesn't have or require a serial number, so long as it’s not transferred.
The individual then adds whatever barrel, stock, pistol grip they want. The ATF doesn't care about those parts being serialized. Again, they were never a big deal because it takes a milling machine and some skill to do. Not difficult, but no drug dealer on the corner is going to make these.
There is one caveat here in reference to non-ghost gun issues. An individual building an AR-15 weapon using this method cannot build a short-barreled rifle. They must build a handgun or a rifle. They cannot put a shoulder stock on the weapon and then attach a barrel shorter than 16”. But we are talking about ghost guns, so how would one know, and that’s not the topic of discussion. It’s only another charge should the individual get caught.
Then things like resin kits came along. This kit allows a person to purchase a form with a few pins and cans of resin. Example here. The individual mixes the resin and pours it into the form to make a resin AR-15 lower receiver. Perfectly legal. When purchased, it's not a firearm. Once poured and dried, it becomes a completed firearm by ATF definition, and it has no serial number, so it becomes a ghost gun at the same time.
The purchaser then adds the other parts as they see fit. It takes time and patience.
Then along comes Polymer80 and similar companies. They make unfinished lower receivers for AR-15s and handgun frames that accept Glock slides. Example here.
These are no different from the others listed above when it comes to firearm and ghost gun definitions. The difference is the ease in which these are finished. They have created a nightmare with the handgun because anyone can make one with little skill, basic tools and a few minutes of spare time.
The AR-15s are not as prevalent as the handguns, but they are out there.
One more note: Simply assembling a weapon at home doesn't make it a ghost gun. An individual can purchase a completed AR-15 lower receiver that meets the definition of a firearm by the ATF, therefore, it will have a serial number. It must be purchased through a FFL dealer, and a background check is required.
From Emily --
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