Ghost Guns: Unraveling the Myth and Understanding the Reality

Ghost Guns: Unraveling the Myth and Understanding the Reality Cover Image

In recent times, the term “Ghost Guns” has been getting significant attention in the media, painted in a light that stirs up fear and misunderstanding. At its core, “Ghost Guns” refers to firearms that are homemade or assembled from parts, typically lacking serial numbers, making them “difficult to trace”. In the media, this term is steeped in sensationalism, just like the misrepresentations surrounding “assault weapons.”

As a pro 2A advocate, it's crucial to sift through the embellishment and understand the reality of these guns. Contrary to the alarming narrative often presented, ghost guns aren't a new phenomenon nor a growing threat to public safety. They represent the exercise of individual rights to build personal firearms – a practice as old as the nation itself. And since there isn't supposed to be a national system of firearm serial number tracking because, you know, federal law prohibits a universal, national gun registry I'm not sure why there is so much fear injected into the public over how difficult “ghost guns” would be to trace in the first place.

The portrayal of ghost guns as a menacing, unregulated danger is not only misleading but also overlooks the bloated legal framework already governing all firearms in the United States. Whether a gun is commercially manufactured or assembled in a home workshop, it falls under the scope of federal laws regulating firearms.

Understanding Ghost Guns: Separating Fact from Fiction

Ghost guns are a topic that has recently captured the public's imagination, thanks in no small part to sensational media coverage. To truly understand them, it's essential first to define what they are. Ghost guns are firearms that are typically homemade or assembled from parts kits. They lack serial numbers and it's important to note that the manufacturing of these guns for personal use is legal under federal law, as long as the maker isn't prohibited from owning firearms.

A quick “Ghost Guns” Google search brings up plenty of examples of the Gun Control Boogeyman.

The term itself – “ghost guns” – is somewhat of a misnomer. It conjures images of shadowy, untraceable weapons circulating in the underworld, but this portrayal is more fiction than fact. It's a narrative that parallels the media's portrayal of “assault weapons,” the term often used to describe semi-automatic firearms in a way that puts fear into the uninformed hearts of the world. Just as with “assault weapons,” the term “ghost gun” is loaded with emotional connotations and lacks technical accuracy.

The reality is that ghost guns are not a significant factor in gun crime. The vast majority of firearms used in criminal activities are obtained illegally, typically through theft or black-market purchases. The process of building a ghost gun requires a certain level of technical skill and equipment, making it less accessible to the average criminal. Furthermore, law-abiding citizens who are enthusiasts of firearm technology and craftsmanship are the most common builders of these guns.

However, the media exaggerates the threat posed by ghost guns. News reports imply that these firearms are a growing danger to public safety, a claim that lacks substantial backing in crime statistics. This type of reporting misleads the public and policymakers, leading to a skewed perception of the actual risks involved.

Legal Framework Governing Firearms: Understanding the Ground Rules

The debate around ghost guns often misses a crucial aspect: the comprehensive legal framework that governs all firearms in the United States, including those produced through 3D printing or other DIY methods. Two critical pieces of federal legislation – the 1968 Gun Control Act and the 1988 Undetectable Firearms Act – lay the foundation for this regulatory environment.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Gun Control Act of 1968 as others look on.
Frank Wolfe / Courtesy LBJ Presidential Library

The 1968 Gun Control Act set forth a variety of regulations regarding the manufacture, sale, and possession of firearms and ammunition. This act requires all manufacturers and dealers of guns to be federally licensed. It also mandates that firearms made by licensed manufacturers be serialized. These requirements extend to all firearms, regardless of how they are manufactured. This includes firearms assembled from parts kits or produced using emerging technologies like 3D printing.

Then there's the 1988 Undetectable Firearms Act, which specifically targets the issue of firearms detection. The act makes it illegal to manufacture, possess, or transfer any firearm that is not detectable by metal detectors or X-ray machines commonly used in airport security. This legislation was pushed through due to concerns over the potential for plastic guns to be smuggled through security checkpoints undetected.

Where confusion often arises is in the interpretation of what makes a firearm “undetectable.” The media often suggests that 3D-printed guns or ghost guns are inherently undetectable because they can be made primarily from polymer materials. However, this is a misconception. The Undetectable Firearms Act requires that all firearms contain a certain amount of metal, ensuring they can be detected by standard security equipment. This holds true even for those produced through 3D printing technology. Thus, a fully plastic, undetectable gun is already illegal under current U.S. law.

This media spin leads to public misunderstanding about the nature and legality of ghost guns. While these firearms may be “untraceable” due to the lack of a serial number, they are not undetectable in the sense of evading standard security checks. Understanding this distinction is crucial in any informed discussion about ghost guns and their regulation.

The Myth of 3D-Printed Firearms: Separating Hype from Reality

In the ongoing conversation about ghost guns, 3D-printed firearms often take center stage, surrounded by a cloud of misconceptions and media hype. To understand the reality of these firearms, it's essential to address the myths head-on.

Cody Wilson, with Defense Distributed, holds a 3D-printed gun called the Liberator at his shop in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Firstly, the idea that 3D-printed firearms are easy and cheap to produce is far from the truth. The cost of 3D printing technology, especially those capable of producing durable and functional firearm components, remains prohibitively high for the average person. Moreover, the process is not as simple as hitting the ‘print' button. It requires significant technical expertise in both 3D printing and gunsmithing. The materials, equipment, and know-how needed to create a reliable and safe firearm are beyond the reach of most individuals. This high barrier to entry significantly limits the production and availability of 3D-printed firearms.

Another critical aspect often overlooked is the legal framework governing these firearms. The Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988 plays a pivotal role here. It explicitly prohibits the manufacture, import, sale, or possession of any firearm that metal detectors and X-ray machines cannot detect. This law effectively makes the concept of a fully plastic, undetectable gun illegal in the United States.

In response to this legislation, 3D-printed firearms are typically designed to include metal components. These components ensure that the firearms are detectable by standard security screening devices, complying with federal law. The portrayal of 3D-printed firearms in the media often focuses on their potential for evading detection and their ease of production, painting a picture far removed from reality. These narratives obscure the legal and practical complexities involved in producing such firearms. Discussions around 3D-printed guns must be grounded in these realities, rather than speculative fears.

The Gun Control Act of 1968 and Homemade Firearms: Navigating the Legal Landscape

The Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA) laid the foundation for modern gun control in the United States, and its implications extend to the realm of homemade firearms. Under the GCA, manufacturing firearms for personal use is legal without a federal license, provided the maker is not prohibited from owning firearms. This means that an individual can make their firearm (such as a ghost gun) without serial numbers or the need for a background check, as long as the firearm is not intended for sale or distribution. This aspect of the law often surprises those who only hear about ghost guns through sensational media reports. However, the reality is that this practice is a longstanding part of American gun culture, rooted in the tradition of self-reliance and personal liberty.

The legal distinction comes into play with what constitutes being “engaged in the business” of dealing firearms. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) regulations, this term refers to a person who devotes time, attention, and labor to dealing in firearms as a regular course of trade or business with the primary objective of livelihood and profit.

For instance, if an individual occasionally makes and sells firearms primarily for personal collection enhancement or as a hobby, they are not considered to be “engaged in the business.” However, if the primary motivation shifts towards profit-making through repetitive purchase and resale, then the individual must obtain a federal firearms license (FFL).

Criminals and Firearm Acquisition: Understanding the Realities

Contrary to the alarming narrative often associated with ghost guns, the predominant sources of firearms used in criminal activities are illegal or black-market channels, not self-manufactured firearms.

A government survey of prison inmates shows what the industry already knows to be true. Criminals rarely obtain their firearms from retailers. In fact, over time, the share of criminals’ firearms that come from retailers has dropped by 10 percentage points. Image Source: NSSF

Studies and reports indicate that the vast majority of criminals obtain firearms through theft, illegal purchases, or other means on the black market. These methods are far more accessible and less resource-intensive than manufacturing a firearm from scratch, which requires specific skills, equipment, and time. The notion that a significant number of criminals are turning to the manufacturing of ghost guns is not supported by evidence. The process of creating a functional and reliable firearm, such as those assembled from parts kits or through 3D printing, is complex and requires a level of expertise that is not commonly found in the general criminal population.

This is something that I would think should be common sense by now, but, by their very nature, criminals do not abide by the law. Implementing further restrictions on law-abiding citizens who are engaging in the legal activity of firearm manufacturing as a hobby is unlikely to deter those who are already committed to obtaining firearms through illegal means. It's a classic case of the law affecting those who are not the problem while failing to impact those who are the actual concern.

Conclusion: A Rational Perspective on Ghost Guns

The discourse surrounding “Ghost Guns” is a complex and multi-layered issue that requires a rational and informed perspective. The term has been sensationalized, creating an image of a rampant and uncontrolled threat, but the reality is far from the myths pushed by the mainstream media. “Ghost guns”, largely homemade or assembled firearms, are not a novel phenomenon nor a predominant tool in criminal activities. Instead, they represent a manifestation of the cherished American tradition of self-reliance and the exercise of Second Amendment rights.

Links to External Resources:

  1. The Truth About Ghost Guns, 3D Printed Guns, and 80% Lowers
  2. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) – Firearms Guidelines
  3. National Shooting Sports Foundation – Understanding Modern Firearms
  4. NSSF – Ghost Guns Explained
  5. Cornell Law School – Legal Information Institute: Gun Control Act of 1968
  6. Congressional Research Service – The Undetectable Firearms Act
  7. Defense Distributed – Information on 3D Printed Firearms

About Mitch Goerdt

Mitch Goerdt is the Director of Marketing and Events at Born and raised amongst the Northeastern woods and waters of Minnesota, Mitch's childhood was filled with adventure, sports, and a deep appreciation for the outdoor lifestyle. His early career saw him don the hat of a mechanic and welder in the taconite mines. However, the call of distant horizons was too strong to resist. Mitch embarked on a journey across the country, soaking in diverse cultures and landscapes. This quest for knowledge also led him back to school, where he secured a Bachelor's Degree in Marketing Communications. Today, at, Mitch spends his days crafting content and using his imagination and skills to leave an impression on his audience. Outside the professional realm, he is a lifelong learner who finds solace in outdoor adventures and satisfies his love of athletics and competition in the world of competitive slowpitch softball.


  1. jim smith on December 17, 2023 at 8:52 am

    Supposedly the number of “ghost guns” used in crimes is inflated because the BATFE includes “untraceable”, commercially made firearms that have had their serial numbers obliterated by the criminals that obtain the guns illegally.

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