Ghost guns are homemade firearms that are practically untraceable because they have no serial number. These are legal to sell and possess on a federal level because the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) defines “firearms” only as finished firearms, frames, and receivers, so those parts that are sold unfinished are not covered by federal law, even if completing them means simply drilling a few holes and putting the thing together. But in California, a number of state laws specifically cover ghost guns, including those that are 3D printed. This is important because these weapons are becoming increasingly common in California, particularly in San Diego County, where local law enforcement agencies have noticed a 169% increase in ghost guns over the last few years.
What Are California’s Existing Rules on Ghost Guns?
In 2016, California passed its first batch of laws addressing the increasingly common problem of homemade guns without serial numbers, all of which also apply to 3D printed guns. Since 2018, everyone who makes their own firearm is required to apply to the Department of Justice (DOJ) to get a unique serial number for their weapon. The DOJ will only issue new serial numbers to those who have:
- a firearm safety certificate
- completed a firearms background check to confirm they are legally eligible to possess a gun
- proof that they are at least 21 years old
- given a full description of the gun they plan to assemble
Once the person receives the serial number, they are legally required to add the number to the gun within 10 days of completing the firearm. Once the DOJ has the information about the newly created gun and its owner, that person cannot generally sell or transfer possession of the weapon. It’s worth mentioning that possession of an unregistered or improperly registered firearm is a crime punishable by up to 3 years in state prison.
Naturally, all homemade guns are also legally required to follow all state firearms laws, meaning they must incorporate a number of safety features and cannot be a prohibited type such as a machine gun or assault rifle.
New Homemade Guns Laws in 2022
Unfortunately while the state passed the existing laws in 2016, ghost guns continued to be a problem in California. In fact, a good number of people who possess unregistered self-assembled firearms are those who cannot pass state or federal background checks because they have a criminal conviction for a felony or certain violent misdemeanor offenses such as domestic violence that prohibit them from owning a gun for the sake of public safety.
That’s why after the nation continued to experience even more deadly instances of gun violence, California passed even more gun laws to limit the use of ghost guns. While originally slated to take effect in 2025, the legislature even passed a new law to speed up the implementation of these new gun laws so they are set to go into effect on July 1, 2022. Now sellers of unfinished receivers and frames will be subject to a similar gun control policy as the sellers of ammunition, meaning they will need to obtain a license before they can sell more than one unfinished gun part in a 30 day period and employees of these businesses must regularly pass background checks. Sales of ghost gun parts will also no longer be permitted online and instead must be done in-person after a background check. Buyers must be over 21 and the sales must be well documented.
A New Ghost Gun Proposal on Red Flag Laws
California State Assembly Member Cottie Petrie-Norris of Laguna Beach just introduced another new piece of gun control legislation directed at homemade guns, Assembly Bill 1057. Under California’s current red flag laws, family members, friends, employers, teachers and co-workers can report someone as a potential danger to themselves or others and if a judge agrees, the police can then go to that individual’s home and confiscate all guns on the premises. But oddly, the way the current statute is written, the police cannot confiscate ghost guns -that’s where AB 1057 comes in. The bill would remove this loophole from the current law, so police could also confiscate homemade firearms as well.
Does Any of this Matter?
With ghost guns making up 30% of all of California’s confiscated firearms in 2019, it can seem like these changes aren’t actually making much of a difference. In fact, data indicates that most people making their own firearms are not following through with adding serial numbers, which makes sense to some extent because if the people getting these guns are those who already lost their Second Amendment rights in one way or another, they may be more likely to be willing to break other gun laws.
But it’s one thing to ask people making their own weapons to register them and another thing to make it harder for people who are not supposed to have weapons to get them. And while many of these people would just head to neighboring states like Nevada with looser rules about ghost guns, the Biden administration has just passed a number of executive orders that will make rules like those in California apply nationwide. If no one in the country can legally buy or sell ghost guns documented purchases and background checks and everyone in the country is required to add a serial number after constructing one, this could help reign in the problem at least to some extent.
Ultimately, only time will tell whether these measures will do anything to reduce gun violence or if they’re just making gun ownership more difficult. In the meantime, if you or a loved one has been accused of any kind of weapon-related crime, please call (760) 643-4050 to schedule a free initial consultation with Peter M. Liss.