Biden and ghost guns

A Liberator pistol appears on July 11, 2013 next to the 3D printer on which its components were made.
Getty Images

I went online this morning and Googled “How to Make a Glock at Home.” In a trice, I came up with 26.4 million hits for websites offering all the component parts, together with assembly directions. Some of the companies offering do-it-yourself kits accept payment in Bitcoin or some other crypto currency.

It is perfectly legal under federal law to make your own gun at home, you just can’t sell it. You may use it to stir your coffee, but you certainly can’t use it to commit a crime. Some states make possession of an unlicensed handgun illegal outside the home. The Supreme Court, in its wisdom, held there to be a personal Second Amendment right to possess an unlicensed gun at home. Whether the right extends to carrying unlicensed guns in the street or on the subway awaits further decision.

A New York Times reporter last year assembled in a Virginia garage a gun kit for a Glock 19 that he had purchased online. It took him six hours, but he said he could have done it more quickly the second time. He picked Virginia as the place of assembly since it was the nearest state where he could legally take the unlicensed gun to a range for testing. The gun functioned perfectly.

The difference between a homemade Glock and one you buy in a gun shop is the absence of a serial number. Since 1934, when the Congress passed its first gun law, assigning a unique serial number to every imported or manufactured gun assumed mythic importance. 

Law enforcement cannot easily trace guns assembled with 3D-printed components or from kits and parts available online. Gun kits are unregulated, and there is no record of the sales. They are called “ghost guns.”

But it is unclear how much serialized guns help law enforcement bring criminals to justice. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) claims it used serial numbers to “process” requests to trace 450,000 guns in 2019. But it has never released figures on how many gun serial number traces have led to an arrest. 

President Biden last month sought to fulfill a campaign promise on ghost guns by proposing a set of regulations requiring retailers to run background checks before selling the kits for homemade manufacture, and to include a serial number on the gun’s frame or receiver. The proposed rule provides that anyone selling a ghost kit must first log the kit into an acquisition and disposition book, give the kit a unique serial number, require that the buyer fill out a form and pass a background check.

The Justice Department justifies the rule by citing 23,906 reports of ghost guns being connected to crimes during the five-year period ending Dec. 31, 2020. How many of these guns were stolen, how many once had serial numbers but the numbers were rubbed off, no one knows. The proposed rule must go through lengthy public comment before it is finalized; and, quite predictably, there is strong opposition from the NRA, which has launched a $2 million campaign to oppose the Biden gun agenda.  

What problem the proposed regulation would solve is mystifying. How likely is it that a criminal will purchase a serialized gun and leave it at the scene of a crime so the gun can be traced back to him? Not very likely. He might as well leave an engraved calling card. Many guns used in criminal acts are stolen. The FBI estimates that roughly 1.8 million guns were stolen in the past five years. Knowledgeable criminals know how to remove serial numbers from guns. All it takes is a file.

There are no reliable statistics on how many privately made firearms are being recovered in crimes, but we do know from data that these firearms are increasingly common. Some guns used in crimes have no serial numbers, but in many cases the serial number has been removed or else the gun was stolen. In the past five years, the ATF has connected 24,000 ghost guns (guns without serial numbers) to crimes, and these figures are possibly underreported. Nevertheless, counting homicides, armed robberies and aggravated assaults, it is fair to say that most serious crimes committed each year are with serialized guns. 

The importance of ghost guns in law enforcement may well be overblown. But let’s throw some more regulation at the problem anyway. As Ronald Reagan put it: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” 

James D. Zirin is an author, talk show host and former federal prosecutor.

Tags 3D printed firearms ATF Firearm laws Firearms ghost gun Glock Gun politics in the United States Gun serial number Joe Biden Overview of gun laws by nation Semi-automatic pistols

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