Ghost Guns: The Untraceable Weapons Popping Up Around Santa Barbara

New Federal Regulations Attempt to Stop the Spread of Polymer Non-Serialized Handgun Kits

Photo collage of polymer-based “ghost guns” recovered in Santa Barbara in 2022 | Credit: Ryan P. Cruz

An Isla Vista party was cut short earlier this month when a 20-year-old man who’d been asked to leave pulled a gun, reportedly assaulting and criminally threatening the host with a polymer “ghost gun.”

A week later, that same man was stopped in Isla Vista, with two 15-year-old males in the car and three “loaded, un-serialized ghost guns.”

It’s an alarming trend that’s been popping up more frequently over the past three years. Un-serialized, unregulated, and untraceable polymer-based pistols known as “ghost guns,” which have become terrifyingly easy to obtain and notoriously difficult for law enforcement to control. In July alone, there were three separate incidents involving such guns in Santa Barbara County.

On July 30, law enforcement was called to another Isla Vista residence to investigate reports of a young man waving a gun at a party. According to the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office, when deputies and Isla Vista Foot Patrol arrived, they saw the suspect lift his shirt to reveal a pistol before fleeing the scene. The teenager was caught and arrested in possession of an unloaded nine-millimeter ghost gun and two live rounds in his pocket.

A week earlier on July 23, Sheriff’s deputies, responding to reports of child endangerment, found a 5-year-old child alone in a house with live ammunition and two ghost guns “easily accessible” on the kitchen counter.  The mother, authorities said, had left the child more than 24 hours earlier, and she was later found intoxicated at another residence and placed under arrest.

On July 14, reports of shots fired on the Westside near Bohnett Park led Santa Barbara police detectives to arrest the 16-year-old suspect, who had in his possession a “non-serialized ghost gun.”

According to Santa Barbara Police Department Communications and Media Relations Supervisor Susan Segura, these types of plastic-based handguns were first reported by city police in March 2019. In 2021, 10 such weapons were recovered, and so far this year, six ghost guns have been recorded.

Countywide, Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Raquel Zick said there were 22 ghost guns recovered in 2021, and a total of 30 so far in 2022.

But these numbers only represent a rough estimate, Segura explained, because of how new this problem is to law enforcement agencies. “Since the description field is subject to an officer’s free text input,” she said, “there is no standard for ghost-gun entries.”

Similarly, there is no way to collect data on how these guns are acquired, or where they came from. Like many agencies across the country, Santa Barbara law enforcement is forced to play catch-up with technology that is growing more advanced every year.

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Ghost guns first began appearing around 2013, when self-described American gun rights activist and crypto-anarchist Cody Wilson created a simple 3D-printed single-shot pistol he called the “Liberator .380.” Unlike today’s ghost guns, the early models were difficult to replicate and only accessible to those who knew how to navigate the tricky 3D printers of the time.

In the past five years, the availability and prevalence of the ghost gun exploded. Instead of 3D-printed DIY models, large companies began to produce and sell hobby “ghost gun kits,” which were nearly exact copies of mainstream handguns, except they are technically only “80 percent” complete. Buyers do not have to go through any background check and can easily transform the unfinished kit into a fully operational handgun within an hour using basic tools.

The murky legality of 80-percent kits is due to a federal law that any “frame or receiver” more than 80 percent finished is considered a functional firearm and subject to the regulations of any normal gun. The 80-percent pistol-frame kits exploit that loophole, creating a legal gray area that allows minors or convicted felons to obtain a non-serialized gun they would otherwise be prohibited from buying. The kits became immediately popular, and across the country, ghost guns became a problem that the government has only recently begun to address. 

On August 24, new federal regulations from the Biden Administration went  into effect, requiring that all parts used to manufacture ghost guns be serialized and all buyers undergo background checks. In the weeks leading up to the law going into effect, online sites selling ghost gun kits and parts experienced a flood of new buyers, with many of the websites selling out their entire inventory.

“Law enforcement agencies throughout California have expressed their concern for the growing trend of unregistered and untraceable ghost guns,” said California Attorney General Rob Bonta in a statement supporting the new rule. “The number of illegal ghost guns seized by law enforcement agencies throughout California has continued to rise drastically year after year.”

And while the new regulations will effectively stop the sale of any new kits ​— ​or at least drive the market back underground ​— ​there is no way to regulate the estimated millions of ghost guns already in circulation.

In 2015, Bonta said, California law enforcement agencies seized a total of 26 ghost guns. By 2021, that number increased to 12,388. Last year, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) reported more than 20,000 ghost guns recovered across the country.

According to the Los Angeles Police Department, almost a quarter of the 8,121 guns seized last year were ghost guns, and 586 of those arrested were former convicts prohibited from having a gun. With these new regulations, lawmakers are hopeful that ghost guns will be viewed as traditional guns.

“In California, we know this is a problem, which is why we regulate ghost guns the same way we do other firearms,” Bonta said. “However, our borders are not impenetrable, which means kits bought elsewhere can be brought into our state. The ATF’s proposed rule will bring federal law up to speed with California law and make it clear that unfinished frames and receivers are firearms and will be regulated as such.”

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