Untraceable ‘ghost guns’ are a threat. It’s time we banned them

Authorities say the number of ghost guns is rising at an alarming rate every year.

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“Ghost guns” are displayed at the headquarters of the San Francisco Police Department in 2019.

Haven Daley/AP

Laws designed to reduce gun violence have too many loopholes, and now a significant one is getting more worrisome, a rule that allows the proliferation of so-called “ghost guns.” The ghost gun loophole needs to be closed.

Ghost guns are deadly firearms that purchasers assemble themselves, skirting the federal requirement for serial numbers that U.S. gun manufacturers and importers must comply with.

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Because they don’t have serial numbers or other identifiers, ghost guns can rarely be traced. Some include no metal and don’t trigger metal detectors. They can be ordered online by someone using no more than a shipping address and payment information. They can even be “printed” with 3-D printers, although weapons made that way are not as sturdy or durable. With the right tools, buyers can assemble the guns in 15 minutes, and extremists explain how to make them in online forums. People can even mass produce them. They can cost as little as $50 to $75.

After they are assembled, ghost guns can be passed from one individual to another and from one locale to another without a trace. Convicted felons who can’t legally buy ordinary guns can readily purchase ghost guns.

Chicago police have seized ghost guns at ever higher numbers over the past five years. In June, a woman was arrested in River North with a loaded ghost gun after a struggle with police officers.

Earlier this month, a suspect was arrested in Baltimore with 40 ghost guns. Two years ago, a California student used a ghost gun to shoot five classmates and himself.

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy has reported that the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms could trace less than 1% of almost 24,000 reports of ghost guns tied to crimes from 2015 through 2020. Authorities say the number of the guns is rising at an alarming rate every year. Last year, 44% of guns recovered in San Francisco homicides were ghost guns. In San Diego nearly 20% of all weapons seized in the first half of this year had no a serial number.

A federal bill called the Untraceable Firearms Act introduced in May would outlaw ghost guns. Also in May, the Justice Department proposed a rule that would make it illegal to sell ghost guns without a serial number. The Justice Department also launched a strike force to target ghost gun manufacturers in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Washington and California’s Bay Area.

“This is a nationwide problem.” J. Adam Skaggs, chief counsel and policy director of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, told us. “The entire structure of these companies is designed to facilitate illegal conduct.”

John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, has called ghost guns “the fastest growing gun safety threat in the country.”

Under current rules, the ATF allows kits that are 80% assembled or less to be sold online and at gun shows without background checks or serial numbers. In March, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul and other attorneys general called for requiring background checks and serial numbers for those weapons.

On Aug. 13, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a law saying firearms parts that could be assembled to make operable weapons can be seized when a firearms restraining order is granted. But a 2019 bill to ban ghost guns entirely never came out of committee, taking a back seat to other measures aimed at reducing gun violence. The Legislature needs to dust off the bill and take action in case federal initiatives fail.

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Earlier this month, the Giffords Center in partnership with San Francisco, where ghost guns increasingly are used in murders, attempted murders and assaults, sued three online retailers for selling ghost guns. Last year, in partnership with California, Giffords sued ghost gun manufacturers on behalf parents whose children were slain by a ghost gun. That suit has been put on hold pending the results of the new federal rulemaking, which is a lengthy process.

Other lawsuits have been filed as well. Last year, Chicago and three other cities sued the federal government to stop ghost guns from proliferating. Also last year, 20 states and the District of Columbia sued to prevent blueprints for making guns on 3-D printers to be posted on the internet.

Neither the federal nor state government should wait for the lawsuits to play out. Ghost guns are becoming more common and more of a threat. It’s time to ban them.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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