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The Truth About Ghost Guns, 3D Printed Guns, and 80% Lowers

Citizens and Politicians concerned about gun violence in America are always looking for new things that can be done. In recent months it seems that a lot of attention has been given to “Ghost Guns” and the implications of unregistered, unserialized, and potentially 3D printed guns on our streets.

As I watch the news reports, read the advertising from companies who sell the products, and generally speaking observe the hysteria I'm inclined to try to set the record straight. What follows are the facts pertaining to the question of Ghost Guns and some analysis of the effect that they can have on gun violence in America.

ATF Serialization of Guns & The Law

To understand Ghost Guns we first need to understand the laws that regulate the construction and commerce of firearms. Federal Gun Laws such as the National Firearm Act of 1934 and the Gun Control Act of 1968, and the Firearm Owner Protection Act of 1986 primarily address the transfer and sale of weapons and not the ownership or manufacture of weapons.

ATF regulations are aimed at what activities define someone as a gun “dealer” and then the rules that regulate what gun “dealers” can and cannot do. Private citizens who want to make or own a gun for themselves (with no intention of transferring it or selling it) are able to do so. There are no laws or regulation that keep Americans from making their own guns because, arguably, that would be against the US Constitution.

This means that anyone can buy raw materials and make a gun. Legally. With the right know-how and very easy to find materials and tools you can make yourself guns. This is the law and ALWAYS has been the law.

The only guns that are required to have serial numbers are those manufactured with the intention of being sold commercially.

What Are Ghost Guns?

Image Courtesy of CBSNews

The term “Ghost Gun” has essentially come to refer to any firearm that doesn't have a serial number.  Politicians show pictures of big scary rifles and 3D printed guns and tell their audience that these are “not registered” and “untraceable” and should not exist. We'll talk more about those arguments, concerns, and counter-arguments shortly.

As you might imagine, building a gun completely from scratch from raw materials can be time-consuming and difficult. There are 2 common things being done that can shortcut the process and both of these are often mentioned as part of the political rhetoric.

80% Lowers

An 80% lower or receiver is what you get when someone manufactures a firearm but stops short of finishing it. In essence, the manufacturer stops when they are 80% or less complete making the gun (or at least the part of the gun that is serialized) and sell it with the intention that the buyer will complete its construction. While the ATF doesn't define a firearm as something 81% completed or not, in many cases unfinished receivers being sold as 80% complete do not meet the definition of a firearm per the ATF. From the ATF's website:

Receiver blanks that do not meet the definition of a “firearm” are not subject to regulation under the GCA. The ATF has long held that items such as receiver blanks, “castings” or “machined bodies” in which the fire-control cavity area is completely solid and un-machined have not reached the “stage of manufacture” which would result in the classification of a firearm per the GCA

For the end buyer, it makes the process of building your own gun easier and faster than starting completely from scratch.

3D Printed Guns

3D printing technology has become more accessible by more people and there are now websites where one can download the plans / file to be able to 3D print the parts of a gun. To be clear, however, these 3D printed guns are not excatly like traditional firearms. Currently, the technology is relatively limited.

Accuracy is very low relatively. Further, in order to work the 3D printed firearm needs a nail to act as the firing pin. In addition, the nail (should) make the gun detectable by standard metal detectors and thus legal. The US Undetectable Firearms Act prohibits weapons that don't set off a metal detector.

What Are The Concerns From The People and Politicians?

All These Ghost Guns Are Unregistered Right?

Yes, but so are all other guns in this country. I know that most of us have seen enough cop TV shows to be under the impression that the government has some sort of database of all the guns and their owners but that isn't a thing.

If I go down to a major retailer like Dicks Sporting Goods, Walmart, or Bass Pro Shops and buy a gun, that gun is no more registered than one that I build myself that has no serial number. I realize this may be hard for some to believe but the Federal Firearm Owner Protection Act of 1986, in fact, prohibits any database of guns and gun owners from existing.

Wait, when people buy guns from stores they have to provide their personal information and submit to a background check don't they? Yes, they do, but the information provided to the government in conducting that background check doesn't include the make, model, or the serial number of that firearm. (Click here for more information about the lack of gun registration)

So while you can most accurately state that Ghost Guns are not registered, to do so inaccurately implies that non-ghost guns are registered which is simply NOT TRUE. With very few exceptions all guns are NOT registered.

All These Ghost Guns Are Untraceable Right?

Correct, but as stated above since no guns are registered, no guns are really traceable. Now to be clear the ATF does maintain a few databases of guns that include guns that have been reported stolen and those used or suspected of being used for criminal purposes but not yet recovered by law enforcement. If a firearm is recovered from a crime scene and assuming it has a serial number that is legible (criminals often remove them) then they can search the ATF's system to see if it is in that database.

As of 2010, these databases from the ATF represented less than 1/2 million firearms. Since current estimates place the number of firearms in the US over 350 million you can quickly do the math and recognize that over 99.9% of firearms are not traceable even if they do have a serial number.

So once again you can accurately state that Ghost Guns are untraceable, but doing so you imply that non-ghost guns are traceable which is NOT TRUE. With very few exceptions all guns are UNTRACEABLE.

So Why The Drama?

I ask myself that same question all the time. Ultimately it comes down to understanding the full picture, bigger plan of those who would like to restrict the Second Amendment of our country. By themselves, policies that prohibit ghost guns require universal background checks, allow firearm registration, and don't actually have any real effect on anything. Only by passing ALL Three of those proposals do we actually get to the meat of the matter.

IF firearm registration was legal and put into effect, and then IF all transfers (purchases) of firearms required a background check that was entered into the registration system, and then IF guns without serial numbers were illegal; THEN that small and select group of people we call “anti-gunners” would get to the place they want to get to. A place where it becomes possible to enact any gun control law you want and be able to enforce it with the direct confiscation of firearms from their owners.

It could be that I'm wrong and these politicians and people raging a war against Ghost Guns don't really want to restrict our Second Amendment … but if that is the case I'm left to assume they are ignorant of the truth.

So if you are reading this and want to maintain your Second Amendment rights then hopefully this gives you some clarity as to why these proposals that attack unserialized firearms could be dangerous.

If you are reading this and you support proposals that would make unserialized firearms illegal than at very least you now understand that it wouldn't actually change anything about anything unless you can also enact firearm registration and universal background checks nationwide.

Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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13 Responses to The Truth About Ghost Guns, 3D Printed Guns, and 80% Lowers

  1. Albert October 18, 2018 at 8:25 am #

    EXCELLENT article. Good info and very informative.

  2. Ivanthetroll January 17, 2019 at 12:00 pm #

    You got 80%s wrong and were wrong about nearly every point regarding printed guns.

    Explanation here for those interested:

    https://mobile.twitter.com/IvanTheTroll12/status/1085974217693294592

    • Jacob Paulsen January 17, 2019 at 1:02 pm #

      Ivanthetroll, thank you for the comment and for fact-checking my writing. I think calling me “wrong about nearly every point” was a little harsh but in response to your helpful comments, I’ve made the following changes above. 1: Clarified that the ATF’s definition of what is not a firearm does not directly correlate with the % finished. Removed the comment about the cost of 3d printers, and given the updated plans available for 3d printed guns since I had last checked, removed some of the language about the limiting factors of 3d printed firearms. Also removed the measure of how heavy a nail is or has to be given the variance as you suggested.

      • bnjohanson November 2, 2019 at 9:10 am #

        Your article was well written and designed to be a general overview, The detail and stats is a constantly evolving, complex venue not just via the Fed, but interstate. Those brought up by Ivantheroll are rounding errors and being bitchy about detail misses your general point. No need to defend yourself as we, at the end of the day, must delve into the deeper minutiae as per our own personal circumstance and application(s) while navigating the legal granularities in tow.

        Great article, and thanks for opening the door.

        ~ B

        • Kerri July 9, 2020 at 6:24 pm #

          Question? If a Ghost gun is used in self defense what are the consequences in the state of Missouri? I’ve heard many different things. One was you would have charges filed against you for using an unregistered weapon? or lose you CC rights?

          • Jacob Paulsen July 9, 2020 at 7:46 pm #

            Kerri, Ghost guns are not illegal in any way. There is no such thing as an un-registered gun in Missouri because there is no such thing as a registered gun in Missouri.

  3. Ray Graham November 2, 2019 at 9:08 am #

    Police don’t know the law so they take your guns anyway. Lock you up, refuse to return your guns or if they finally do return them most times they are scratched, scraped, miss handled so your value is not what you had. You are treated like a criminal though your worst crime may have been a parking ticket.
    Then they whine about how they are mistreated. Don’t get me wrong, I support law enforcement but there are two sides to all of this.

    • Mykala December 13, 2019 at 8:30 pm #

      Dealing with this currently. Husbands gun was confiscated in July and we just had to go post 1500$ bond. They are charging him with possession of a firearm with an altered serial number. Even though it never had a serial number.

  4. Andy November 2, 2019 at 9:13 am #

    You completely skipped the part where every firearm purchase from a dealer does record the make, model and serial number of the firearm sold along with the purchaser’s ID. While this data is not yet automatically assembled in a federal database all that it would take is the BATF calling for dealers to send in all those records.

    I Oregon we now have universal background checks and the firearm info recorded in a database.

  5. Mike November 11, 2019 at 9:36 am #

    That’s why I live in Texas…not Oregon.

  6. Andog December 18, 2019 at 4:23 pm #

    Nice article in many ways, but one unfortunate error. Here in the land of anti-gun Connecticut, the State maintains a completely illegal database of all guns sold. If, for example, one is accused of domestic violence, that person is almost always arrested and charged. When that happens, the police arrive at that person’s door with a computer-generated list of all of the firearms that the State knows this person to possess. Then all locatable firearms are confiscated. Period. If the charges are dismissed, it is a Herculean task to get one’s firearms returned.

    • Marcia Loffredo October 17, 2020 at 3:29 pm #

      That is ONE of many reasons my hubby and I escaped from CT to TN….less expensive here too!

  7. Charlie32 October 17, 2020 at 12:17 pm #

    The State of Michigan requires get a “Permit to Purchase” or a have a “CPL”, in order to purchase a handgun from a dealer. and “All” purchased handguns must then be registered within 10 days with the county sheriff. I live in Michigan and have been subjected to this for many years..

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