Demand increasing for ghost guns, ATF says


PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — As gun demand hits record levels due to COVID-19, demand is also increasing for a new type of gun you build at home. It is untraceable with no serial number, no background check and no waiting period.  

They are called ghost guns. Please note that a gun is no longer a ghost gun when a serial number is engraved in the gun. The number makes the gun traceable. 

A ghost gun cannot legally be sold without the seller serializing the gun. 

As part of WAVY’s investigation, we called local police. They don’t see a growing trend with ghost guns, but the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) is seeing them pop up at crime scenes.  

There have been widespread ghost gun cases reported in New York, one in which a ghost gun was used by a man to shoot his 6-year-old nephew. 

In Indiana, two brothers were indicted on charges related to making 55 fully automatic ghost guns for ISIS. 

One of the most horrifying examples occurred in November 2017.   

In Northern California, Kevin Neal who was prohibited from owning a gun, and who was under prosecution for other crimes, assembled two assault-style ghost guns from parts he ordered online and went on a rampage with them, killing five people and injuring 12 before turning the gun on himself and dying.  

Here in Virginia, local police contacted by WAVY have no knowledge of any ghost gun trends.  

We did find Matt, who didn’t not want to be further identified, who buys the makings of ghost guns online, and then constructs them at his home. However, he will put a serial number on the gun, which will then make the gun a traceable weapon and not a ghost gun.   

He can legally construct them at home because he is not getting the entire firearm. He has to add things to what he gets to make it a firearm as defined by the ATF. 

Why do people construct ghost guns? 

“Rather than buy a gun … you can make the gun you want, and you start from the beginning and do it yourself,” Matt said.

When you construct a ghost gun you purchase what is known as an 80% lower receiver, which is the basic lower frame of what will become a firearm. It only becomes a firearm when you add the remaining 20%, which you have to do on your own. 

As he looks at the lower frame Matt says, “this currently lacks the fire control pocket, the pinholes, and the selector hole … you must also add an upper receiver that includes the barrel and the bolt carrier group.”  

Matt constructs about 12 guns a year, and uses what is called a Ghost Gunner, which is a manufacturing concern managed by Defense Distributed based in Austin, Texas. Ghost Gunner is the company, Ghost Gunner 3 is the product.  

The Ghost Gunner mills or carves out the cavities in the lower receiver.  

Matt takes us through a quick play by play on the process to construct a ghost gun, which again will  no longer be a ghost gun once there is a serial number engraved on the gun.  

“Here we have an AR-15 … we have a magazine … it has a fire control group pocket milled out and it has the trigger and hammer selector holes milled out … at this point it meets the ATF definition of a firearm … this is a completed AR 15 … it started like this and eventually becomes this … in my right hand is a completed AR-15 lower with fire control group installed.”  

It is amazing to witness the transformation from beginning to end.  

10 On Your Side met with ATF law enforcement outside the Federal Building in Norfolk,.

“I can tell you we are seeing more privately made firearms recovered at crimes in the last 2 to 3 years,” says Assistant Special Agent in Charge Jamey VanVliet. He would not give specific statistics, but says ballistic imaging technology ties ghost guns to other crimes, 

“I can’t tell you how the privately made firearms got to the crime scene, but roughly 10% of those Ghost Guns connected to a crime link back to other shooting events or crime scenes.” 

Many lawmakers believe ghost guns are loopholes around federal gun laws, “and that’s why we need to make sure this new scourge of untraceable firearm is stopped,” said Connecticut U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, who is trying to push through Congress the Untraceable Firearms Act. 

“Every purchaser should go through a background check. We want to essentially apply the same rules that now apply to other type of firearms to these build-it-yourself kit ghost guns, Blumenthal said.”

Here are the states currently regulating Ghost Guns: 

  • Connecticut  
  • California  
  • New Jersey  
  • New York  

A few other states are in the process, but have not yet successfully put laws on the books. Virginia is not a state associated with ghost gun legislation. 

Gun rights activist and the leader of The Virginia Citizens Defense League, Philip Van Cleave: “The other side is trying make it sound like it’s something new and that is something dangerous. That it is a loophole … these ghost guns … that’s a bunch of baloney, all of it.” 

Van Cleave says people have made guns at home since the founding of America, 

“If a criminal wants a gun, he can get one without a background check. All they have to do is send in someone else to buy the gun, to get the background check, and then the criminal gets his gun.” 

Senator Blumenthal counters: “a hobbyist may like to have a ghost gun, but a legitimate lawful gun owner should have no objection to having a serial number on a gun.” 

Van Cleave also points out the tracing of a firearm always takes place after the crime’s committed. 

Adam Skaggs is with the Giffords Law Center.

“Someone with an extensive criminal background who would not be able to pass a background check can simply go online, or go to a gun store, or go to a gun show and acquire these kits.” 

A New York attorney general called ghost guns “the new frontier of illegal firearms trafficking.” 

Skaggs continues, “we see criminal enterprises, vast networks that are building these things turning them out, and selling them to networks of people who cannot buy or own guns.” 

This is an important part involving Matt. He explained it this way, 

“Ultimately, I do not create any ‘ghost guns’ as I serialize all of mine, but during that period of time between milling and engraving the serial number they do exist as a ghost gun.” 

Matt is a licensed firearms manufacturer and produces about 12 guns a year, and when he sells them, he comes under strict federal guidelines.

“I am able to finish them out, serialize them, and sell them following a background check to make sure the buyer is legally allowed to own a firearm.” 

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