File photo of a traditional gun recovered in D.C. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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D.C. recovered 115 ghost guns in 2019, a significant uptick compared to years prior. Law enforcement found three ghost guns in 2017 and 25 in 2018, according to city officials.

Ghost guns are firearms that are assembled through kits or made by 3D printers. Because they are homemade, ghost guns are untraceable, and the ones made largely or entirely from plastic evade metal detectors. The uptick in ghost guns has made the city’s job of curbing access to illegal weapons and mitigating violence even harder.    

“The dimensions of our challenge evolve,” says Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Kevin Donahue. “Part of our challenge and what we focus on is being adaptive. This ghost guns challenge is one that’s entirely new and one that will make the work of the chief officers and the chief [of police] even more difficult than it was two years ago.” 

Of the firearms recovered last year, a total of 2,050 firearms, approximately 6 percent were ghost guns, according to a Metropolitan Police Department spokesperson. These types of guns were used in multiple shootings last year, she says. Ghost guns were used in three homicides in 2019—a year that saw the highest homicide count in a decade, at 166. A ghost gun was used by a civilian in an officer-involved shooting in Northeast that happened in December.

D.C. has relatively strict gun control laws already, but people have devised ways to skirt requirements like serialization and background checks. 

Here’s how ghost guns usually work: The most critical part of a gun—therefore, regulated under federal law—is a frame (for a handgun) or the receiver (for a long gun). Someone could get all the other pieces without, for example, undergoing a background check. Creative types picked up on this loophole and started to sell 80 percent frames and receivers, which just means a frame or receiver that’s less than 80 percent finished because anything more would demand that the user have a full background check and meet other requirements, as decided by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. It’s not that complicated to take the receiver to 100 percent, and so average Joes are building guns at home. It’s a common misconception that ghost guns are all 3D printed, largely due to early press on the issue

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, on behalf of Mayor Muriel Bowser, introduced legislation in January 2019 to ban ghost guns. The District already bans manufacturing guns and unregistered firearms, but these weapons are defined by their firing mechanisms. The mayor’s bill amends the Firearms Control Regulations Act of 1975 to explicitly ban the possession, sale, or transfer of ghost guns. The Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety held an October hearing, and the spokesperson for the committee chairman, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, says the bill will move forward this year. Lawmakers are still tinkering with the bill.   

Various gun control advocacy groups like Moms Demand Action and Brady United Against Gun Violence endorse the bill. “The Mayor’s recent announcement that she will be adding more resources to retrieving casings and adding [District of Columbia Department of Forensic Sciences] investigators will be undercut if ghost guns become common,” said Moms Demand Action’s Rebecca Davis during her testimony to the Council in October. Brady’s Legal Counsel, Christa Nichols, said then: “Brady applauds the Council for taking action to ban the possession of ghost guns, treating them the same as other weapons that pose a unique risk to public safety, such as sawed-off shotguns, bumpstocks, and silencers.” 

David Pucino, a staff attorney with Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, applauds D.C. for tackling the issue of ghosts guns, which has increasingly become a problem nationwide in recent years.   

“There unfortunately isn’t consistent reporting of ghost gun recoveries. So the information that we have is somewhat ad hoc. But every data point that we’ve had has indicated a large growth in the recovery of ghost guns,” says Pucino. “In California, in the last year, one in every three crime guns recovered was a ghost gun, which was a stunning figure for me, and frankly, rather scary.”

The one flag he raises, however, is how D.C. defines “ghost gun” in the legislation. The bill defines it as “a firearm that, after the removal of all parts other than a receiver, cannot be detected by a metal detector.” But the term typically refers to untraceable firearms that lack serial numbers. D.C.’s definition appears to just focus on plastic ones that metal detectors miss, meaning it wouldn’t catch all DIY guns. 

“This conflation may be because 3D-printed firearms can be both untraceable and undetectable (because they are made of polymer plastics). But untraceable ghost guns are not necessarily undetectable, and 80 percent frames and receivers can be made from metal or plastic,” he says. For tips on how to draft definitions that capture all ghost guns, Pucino recommends looking at a bill introduced by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and one in Oregon

There’s also the problem of D.C.’s neighbors. Guns are being trafficked into D.C., mostly from Virginia, and some from other states like Maryland. In 2017, only 60 percent of illegal guns can be traced to a transfer in D.C. Meaning, neighboring states’ ghost gun problems are D.C.’s. A bill to ban ghost guns failed in Maryland last legislative session, while Virginia Democrats are looking to pass a gun-control package this year, but it doesn’t mention ghost guns. 

D.C. isn’t alone in this, says Pucino. Case in point: New Jersey. The New Jersey’s Office of the Attorney General was monitoring an illegal trafficking ring in Camden County, when investigators learned traffickers had to delay a gun sale because of the new state law banning ghost guns. So instead, traffickers shipped it to Pennsylvania. They were ultimately busted

“Having a legislative solution for D.C. would be very important in its own right, and the effectiveness would depend on the extent to which surrounding neighboring states are able to take similar actions,” says Pucino. “A federal solution would be the best solution to this problem because it’s really a problem of federal law that allows for these ghost gun sellers to provide these 80 percent frames and receivers.”