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A Guide to Ghost Guns For Law Enforcement

Posted on: August 12, 2022

Ghost guns aren’t a new phenomenon, but their presence has increased exponentially since the privately made firearm movement was jumpstarted between 2012 and 2013 in the United States.  

Robert E. Walker’s recent book, A Field Guide to Ghost Guns: For Police and Forensic Investigations dives into the history of gun-making, the latest evolutions of ghost gun politics and these weapons' legality within the U.S. 

This book specifically highlights the fact that it’s always been legal for U.S. citizens to manufacture their own firearms. It’s the actual sale of these weapons that is currently illegal. 

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What is a ghost gun? 

As Walker breaks down in his book, a ghost gun is a homemade firearm that is not reported to the federal register or to any third-party entity outside the builder. As their name suggests, these are unregistered firearms that exist as “ghosts” with no official record or traceable paper trail. 

In the past, many people haven’t made their own weapons due to a lack of access to the tooling and machinery required to create a self-made firearm. However, this has been circumvented in the last 15 years, according to Walker, due to the proliferation of ghost gun kits (which include most of the materials needed to make a firearm), 3D printed gun designs and downloadable how-to content from the internet. 

Someone can purchase a ghost gun kit, also known as a “buy build shoot kit,” online or at a gun show and assemble it at home — without any background check. There’s no law restricting the sale of these firearm parts if they remain unassembled. This is extremely worrisome for gun control legislators. 

Improvised guns vs. ghost guns 

A ghost gun shouldn’t be confused with an improvised gun. An improvised gun, also known as a “zip gun,” is a broad term to describe any devices that function, even if just once, as a firearm by expelling a projectile using the force of an explosive. These are clandestinely manufactured due to circumstances including legality issues, living in a remote area and poverty. 

An improvised gun can be made from any materials, even if it’s roughly constructed and assembled. This includes a mix of donor gun materials, homemade components or a combination of both. Unlike ghost guns, unorthodox parts and methods are used to construct the firearm, such as using a flare gun as the base or a metal pipe for the receiver and barrel. 

Some people will create improvised guns from whatever metal they have available, such as kitchen pots and pans, automotive parts or unknown scrap metal. This is dangerous, as the combinations of random metals can result in the creation of an unsafe alloy. 

How prevalent are ghost guns? 

Because there’s no official law or policy to keep track of ghost gun creation, there’s no surefire way to estimate the current number of ghost guns in the U.S. However, in terms of the number of ghost guns recovered and reported by law enforcement, roughly 20,000 suspected ghost guns were recovered by law enforcement in criminal investigations and reported to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in 2021 alone. The White House shared that this figure shows the number of ghost guns recovered in the U.S. has increased tenfold since 2016.  

Guns and Crime: The Data Don’t Lie by Mark Gius investigates the ways that current data are inadequate and inaccurate regarding guns and crime, especially when it comes to ghost guns. He highlights the lack of thorough studies and research to explore the relationship between ghost guns, crime and public safety policy — as well as the potential implications of this situation. 

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How are police and government officials addressing ghost guns? 

There is a struggle currently between the rate of ghost gun accessibility and policymaking. Ghost gun technology evolves and spreads rapidly across the internet. Meanwhile, new policy development moves at a much slower rate, especially when guns are concerned. 

Walker explains in his book that under current law published by the ATF, a private individual isn’t required to “acquire nor maintain a firearms manufacturer’s license to self-manufacture a firearm solely for personal use as long as certain conditions are met.” Basically, if you make a ghost gun for personal use, it’s non-regulated activity. 

Ghost guns don’t require a background check, which is a major motivator for those legally prohibited from buying guns, such as domestic abusers, to seek them out. They’re unserialized, difficult to trace and typically designed to avoid current gun laws. In other words, ghost guns can act as a loophole for prohibited purchasers looking to avoid gun-related regulations. 

How can law enforcement address ghost guns and resulting violent crime?

Currently, the main way the government can track and understand the proliferation of ghost guns in the U.S. is through ghost gun recoveries reported by the police. These are done through traffic stops, controlled buys and controlled delivery. They can also be recovered at a crime scene after gun violence.On a federal law level, home gunsmiths aren’t legally allowed to share equipment or machinery with others to make guns. Otherwise, they fall outside the realm of self-manufacturing a firearm solely for personal use. 

Some states have passed laws to regulate ghost guns, including: 

  • California 
  • Connecticut 
  • District of Columbia 
  • Hawaii 
  • Nevada 
  • New Jersey 
  • Rhode Island 
  • Washington 

In 2018, California Penal Code sections 29180–29184 went into effect. According to this new regulation, residents who self-manufacture or self-assemble a firearm are now required to apply for a unique serial number prior to the weapon's creation. However, Walker notes that this law is contradicted by a lawsuit brought by California and other plaintiffs against the ATF and other federal entities in 2020 (Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief). This lawsuit attempted to ban the same articles that the 2018 law offers a lawful path to make. 

A Field Guide to Ghost Guns Free Chapter Image

Chapter 1 - A Brief History of Gun Making

This free chapter from A Field Guide to Ghost Guns covers the evolution of gun making, from materials to new methods of creation that have seen the rise of ghost guns. It also covers historic gun laws and how ghost guns provide a challenge for law enforcement on local, state, and federal level. 



How law enforcement can address those apprehended with ghost guns 

According to Walker’s book, when law enforcement professionals come into contact with a suspect carrying an illegal homemade firearm (or firearms), they can utilize typical methods and styles of investigation to collect information and evidence. 

If the suspect is willing to cooperate in exchange for legal considerations, the individual may agree to be enlisted as a confidential informant. This can help law enforcement identify additional sources of ghost guns. 

Typical information that law enforcement should seek includes: 

  • The cost of the firearm. 
  • Payment methods. 
  • Communication methods. 
  • Whether undercover operatives can enter the exchange. 
  • If there are other illegal activities involved in the situation. 

More comprehensive techniques and information can be found in Walker’s A Field Guide to Ghost Guns: For Police and Forensic Investigations. 

Why are ghost guns a problem? 

As an unregulated firearm, a ghost gun kit or an instruction set can be obtained by or for dangerous individuals who cannot legally purchase firearms. This undermines both federal and state gun regulations. 

As gun crime increases, so does the market for ghost guns. Law enforcement utilizes gun tracing to improve gun safety — but a ghost gun has no serial number. Gun traffickers have open access to kits and unregulated parts that they can share with the criminal market, all without breaking any laws. 

Taylor & Francis educational resources for ghost guns and more 

Robert E. Walker’s A Field Guide to Ghost Guns: For Police and Forensic Investigations is a great resource for diving deeper into the study of ghost guns This is the first book to specifically research and explore the growing issues of ghost guns, as well as the legal, contextual and historical factors surrounding them. 

For law enforcement individuals that are seeking more educational resourcing for policing and professional development, explore our top recommended policing books