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What is a ghost gun?

Closing loopholes around "ghost guns"
Closing the loopholes around "ghost guns" 03:37

The Biden administration unveiled new regulations for "ghost guns" on Monday, April 11, in a move that advocates say will help reduce gun violence. The new rules will help law enforcement track and trace these firearms, which authorities say are increasingly involved in crimes.

What is a ghost gun?

Ghost guns are unregistered and untraceable homemade weapons that can be made with a 3D printer or assembled from a kit. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, such weapons are contributing to a rise in gun violence, reported CBS News' Jeff Pegues in February. The weapons can be produced for less than $200, though officials have put the average price at around $500. 

Countless websites offer kits for everything from handguns to AR-15s and AK-47s, as CBS News found in 2018, when correspondent Carter Evans was able to purchase a kit for a gun similar to a Glock 9mm with no background check or waiting period.  

Current law requires firearms manufacturers to include serial numbers on weapons, but doesn't regulate most parts, making these types of assembled guns hard for authorities to trace. And buyers of kits aren't required to undergo background checks the way gun purchasers are — which authorities say allows people to skirt laws aimed at blocking certain gun purchases.

"If you're a felon or judged mentally unfit, for example, federal law says you're not supposed to have any kind of firearm. Build a ghost gun? No one knows you have it," Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva told "60 Minutes" correspondent Bill Whitaker in 2020.

It's generally legal to make a firearm for personal use, according to the ATF. So, someone can make a gun at home — either with a kit or through 3D printing — without a license.

How are ghost guns made?

"You can buy a box of firearms parts, and you can assemble those firearms together. And I've seen videos on YouTube, where you can see people doing it in record time — 20, 30 minutes," ATF acting director Marvin Richardson said earlier this year.

One part — what's called the frame or lower receiver — is regulated under federal gun law. In a kit, that part has to be drilled out. But the kits generally come with the drill bits and guides necessary to do so, and there are tutorials easily available online, Evans reported.

ATF: Spike in crime driven in part by "ghost" guns 02:39

"Today, people can sit at home in their living room, log on to their computer, access a piece of software, send a signal to their printer, and print out a machine gun that can kill people. That's a problem," John Miller, the NYPD's deputy commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism, told CBS New York.

Why authorities say ghost guns are dangerous

While ghost guns are only a fraction of the firearms involved in gun crimes, law enforcement across the country are pointing the finger at ghost guns as a growing problem.

"They're trying to appeal to a certain segment of the population," Dave Hamilton, then a senior special agent ATF, told Evans in 2018. "Felons who can't go to a gun store and legally purchase a firearm, or people who just don't want the government knowing what type of firearms they have."

A senior administration official said the ATF was able to trace fewer than 1% of the approximately 45,000 ghost guns recovered during criminal investigations between January 2016 and December 2021, reported CBS News' Bo Erickson. Almost 700 of the incidents were homicides or attempted homicides, the official said.

Ghost guns have been involved in school shootings, such as one in Saugus, California, where a 16-year-old killed four people, and in mass shootings, like one in Northern California where a 44-year-old used a ghost gun to kill five people despite a court order prohibiting him from having guns.

The new regulations would mandate kits include serial numbers, and people who sell them would have to be federally licensed and run a background check on people purchasing kits. They would also be required to keep records of those purchases for as long as they're in business, rather than the 20 years under current requirements.

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