Regulating Ghost Guns

Regulating Ghost Guns

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D

Before we look at the literal nuts and bolts of the gun business, let us pause for a brief history lesson.

In 1791 the fledgling United States of America had bills to pay left over from the War of Independence. One revenue source was a tax on alcohol and tobacco. The Department of Treasury, established just two years prior, had already been an idea conceived in 1775 during the fund-raising efforts for the war. A variety of tax legislation ensued but a notable addition to the government’s bureaucracy was the establishment of the Office of Internal Revenue in 1862. Tax evasion and organized crime became a serious problem resulting in the authorizing the hire of three detectives to investigate alcohol tax evaders. These were the forerunners of today’s ATF.

Organized crime delivered the still-craved illegal alcohol and its violent ways extended past the end of Prohibition. In 1934 the first comprehensive federal gun control legislation was passed with the intent to put a damper on violent crime by taxing and regulating machine guns, silencers, and sawed off shotguns. In 1938 new laws prohibited the possession of firearms by felons, regulated interstate commerce of guns and ammunition, required dealer and manufacturer licensing, and required marking firearms and keeping records.

After the assassinations of President Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr

federal legislation increased regulatory control and included bombs and destructive devices for the first time. In 1972, reorganization gave formal birth to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and to the National Gun Tracing Center. The ATF remained under the Treasury Department until it was transferred to the Department of Justice under the post-911 Homeland Security Act. 

Federal jurisdiction over firearms comes from the Constitutional power to regulate interstate commerce. Therefore, guns that are personally hand-made for personal use and not for sale or distribution, known as PMFs ( are not subject to the complex web of firearms regulations. This has not historically been a factor in violent crime, but technology has increased the ability to make firearms outside of factories and licensed gun makers and firearms dealers. These hand-assembled functional firearms are called ghost guns because they lack the traceability of traditionally made guns.

Components of a firearm that can readily make a firearm operable are within the definition of a firearm regulated by the ATF. The primary parts are the frame on semi-automatic handguns and receivers on long guns. These components must be stamped with a serial number which can be traced from factory to owners as the weapon is transferred among buyers by licensed dealers. Gun kits, ostensibly for individual custom-made firearms, can come with “blanks” that require drilling, milling, or machining to become a functional frame. A kit may also include a “flat” which needs to be bent and folded into shape.

A major advance in homemade replicas of brand-name guns is 3D printing. Components can be rapidly made with such devices. When paired with machines available for purchase with software that can get kit components into service rapidly, PMFs can be cranked out for availability to buyers who have no interest in a traceable firearm or could not legally purchase a regulated firearm because of their criminal history or age.

According to a White House 2022 press release, 20,000 PMFs were seized by law enforcement in a time period reflecting a ten-fold increase since 2016. In Baltimore, MD police seize an average of six PMFs a day reflecting a 400% increase over just a few years ago. A quarter of those are taken from persons under age 21 and as young as 14. These ghost guns are valued by violent criminals and drug offenders.

Although usually untraceable, the ATF requests law enforcement to submit PMFs for trace requests for statistical purposes. Ghost guns are a challenge to investigators, and a challenge to those who see their rights to custom-make guns for their personal sporting use threatened by proposed legislation to regulate the available custom kits.