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New federal regulations target ghost guns

University of Miami researchers explain how ghost guns—which can be bought online and built at home—are made and the implications of a new presidential proposal to make them traceable.
President Joe Biden speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Monday, April 11, 2022, to announces new action by the Biden Administration to fight gun crime. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Speaking in the Rose Garden at the White House on April 11, President Joe Biden announces new action by his administration to fight gun crime. Photo: The Associated Press

The incidence of crimes related to the use of ghost guns has increased dramatically in the United States as law enforcement departments throughout the nation report finding the unmarked, privately made weapons at many crime scenes.

There is a significant increase in the number of these guns, according to news reports, which disclose that approximately 20,000 of them were recovered in 2021 throughout the country.

This troubling trend prompted the Biden administration to announce last week that there would be new rules that would make the unregulated weapons—which can be bought online and built at home without serial numbers—traceable, thus making it easier to arrest the criminals using them.

“These guns are weapons of choice for many criminals,” said President Joe Biden. “If you commit a crime with a ghost gun, expect federal prosecution.”

Biden urged that to control gun usage, more strict measures must be approved by the U.S. Congress.  

Maxwell “Max” Jarosz, director of the fabrication lab at the School of Architecture, and Justin Stoler, associate professor of geography and sustainable development in the College of Arts and Sciences, examine the issue of ghost guns. Stoler also has studied gun violence in Miami-Dade County.

What is a ghost gun?

Jarosz: Ghost gun is a term that is often applied to a 3D printed gun, but it can really be any sort of gun that does not have any kind of registration mark so that you cannot tell the origin of the firearm.

Stoler: A ghost gun is a kit that is widely available online and circumvents gun sales rules that usually require registration and background checks. It allows you to order gun parts that are not regulated or registered. Consumers can watch a YouTube video and assemble a working firearm with no serial numbers and no tracking in an hour. From what I understand, if you can assemble an IKEA dresser, you can make a ghost gun.

Is printing a ghost gun easy to do?

Jarosz: The most rudimentary version of these guns would be able to be assembled by most kids in high school. 3D printers are available for as little as $200. They could go to a website, and all the 3D models are there available to download and print. They can then follow instructions that tell them how to put it together. In that case, it would be a gun that is completely 3D printed.

Why are we seeing a spike in ghost gun incidents?

Jarosz: I think it relates to the consumer pricing. It used to be that the 3D printers were upwards of $5,000 and only a few manufacturers were producing them. Now, you can find options in the $200 to $500 range, which would be the same as buying your child a PlayStation. Each spool of ABS material [plastic used for making objects] is $30 to $50, which is also not that expensive. Additionally, the resources available from the greater decentralized D.I.Y. maker community has significantly increased. So, now with the affordability of printing and more files and information on assembly available, it isn’t surprising that this trend is increasing.

Stoler: In addition to panic-buying associated with the pandemic, the lockdown meant that people were less able to attend gun shows and traditional venues where people buy firearms. Almost every industry adapted to mail shipping during the pandemic, and the gun industry was no exception. So, if you wanted a gun without a background check or registration—whether you intended to do something bad or you just want privacy—you get a gun kit through the mail. Obviously, not everyone who wants a gun is going to do something terrible. But ghost guns make it easier for the weapons to end up in the hands of prohibited purchasers, domestic abusers, and traffickers.

Will the Biden administration’s new rules curtail the use of these weapons?

Jarosz: Growing up near Chicago, where gun violence is prevalent, I don’t think that all gun regulation is particularly effective. In the existing legislation there are a variety of ways to get guns without registration, and I think this will continue regardless of the new rules. For 3D printing, as long as files without registration numbers are available or if users can edit them off, they will be able to get around this legislation. While many major websites like YouTube will likely block these types of instructional videos and downloads, there are many places on the internet that they will still be shared. I don’t know how to solve that.  

Stoler: I doubt that this will significantly curtail the sale of ghost guns. There are counterfeit or generic versions of many goods. These ghost gun kits are kind of serving a similar purpose as stand-ins for name-brand finished guns sold at stores or gun shows and will inevitably continue to trade illegally. The new rules also, of course, do not address all the untraceable ghost guns already in circulation.