Mass media outlets have sounded the alarms on so-called ‘ghost guns’ over the last few years. These privately built firearms have come under pressure as the new go-to scapegoat for gun violence prevention advocates both nationally and internationally, putting pressure on law enforcement and other government agencies to push for stricter restrictions and possible bans.
News media outlets like CNN and NBC News have covered the story in various different ways, focusing on ghost guns’ untraceable nature, easy accessibility, and the process of building them. At the same time, the over-hyped term ‘ghost gun’ has become a sort of boogie man for these outlets, when it actually refers to nothing more than any privately assembled firearm by individuals from gun parts or build kits including one unfinished piece (typically a 80% frame or the 80 percent lower receiver, requiring purchasers to complete them into a fully functioning firearm). This process is done through milling/drilling to complete the 80 lower into a 100% receiver.
Licensed gun manufacturers are required to engrave identification information on firearms which includes:
- ✓ Serial number,
- ✓ Make
- ✓ Model
Meanwhile, under current Federal laws, privately manufactured firearms made using build kits and incomplete 80 lower receivers are not required to sport a serial number. Purchasers also need not undergo a background check before purchasing, as they would if they were buying a complete firearm.
According to a new report released by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), most guns acquired by criminals and used in connection with a crime are, in fact, completed serialized firearms. The numbers prove that these weapons are not being built at home, but being acquired through other means.
These firearms are illegally obtained through a widely used method known as “straw” sales. This is where the actual buyer is unable to pass the federal background check, and another person with a clean background steps in to buy the weapon on his or her behalf.
Despite the fact of its illegality, potential 10 year prison sentence, and punishable fine of $250,000, these so-called straw sales are one of the most popular methods for criminals to obtain guns today. In-fact , it is so popular that it accounts for 40% of guns used in crimes, across the board.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a further 40% of criminals obtain their firearms from illegal sources on the streets and online black market trades. The firearm industry takes the matter of criminal acquisition very seriously. They are often able to raise public awareness by detecting if sales are straw purchases. Measures have also been put in place by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) to help the ATF better educate America’s firearm retailers on this matter. Even with all of this, however, criminals manage to fly under the radar and succeed in most cases when it comes to acquisition.
Even with an unlimited supply of serialized guns available in over 50,000 firearm retail stores around the United States, many do not carry gun parts or build kits in their stores. Due to its difficulty, time consuming nature, and steep learning curve, the average consumer will not benefit from a self build, leaving most stores disinclined to sell them.
“The process of building your own firearm takes knowledge, skills and special tooling to properly get it done”, says Richard Burnside, a retired gunsmith at Brownells, Inc. “Although the parts needed to complete a firearm are widely available, they are expensive, along with the tooling. And the time it takes to build is a process itself”.
In the self-built gun market, it’s possible to find buyers with underhanded intentions. But those motivated to commit violent crimes have shown low intention when it comes to investing time and money into building kits, acquiring the correct equipment, educating and training themselves on the process, and developing the skill to actually complete a functioning firearm. According to data published by the U.S. Department of Justice, most criminals prefer purchasing complete firearms, as it is easier and quicker then building one from scratch.
How can people buy ghost guns?
A ghost gun is a firearm made without a serial number. To the man on the street, you might think this is inherently illegal, as federal law requires all guns sold in the US to have a serial number as stated by the Gun Control Act of 1968. That is, all complete guns.
According to the ATF, all transfers of firearms must be done through an FFL holder. This FFL, or Federal Firearms License, gives a company the authority to sell firearms to the public. While states regulate the sale of firearms within their borders, companies selling guns must have a valid federal license. However, this license only extends to the transfer of firearms as defined by federal law.
What is the definition of a firearm: The legal definition of a firearm is multifaceted. Per ATF regulations, pursuant to the National Firearms Act of 1934, the definition is as follows:
“Any weapon (including a starter gun) which will or is designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive;
- ✓ The frame or receiver of any such weapon;
- ✓ Any firearm muffler or firearm silencer; or Any destructive device.
And that is where DIY kits come into play. When it comes to ghost guns and how they can be purchased, the method actually doesn’t stray into the realm of “legal loopholes” as many in the media would have you believe. Instead, this is a completely legal route to owning a gun, through the machining of 80% lowers.
80% lowers are receivers or frames of guns that are not yet completed or ready for use. They do not have the fire control groups milled out, and are not “designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive…”.
This means that 80% lowers are not, by definition, firearms. Therefore, they are completely legal for consumers to own for the purpose of manufacturing their own home-made firearms. Just like you would buy car parts to customize a car or even build one yourself, an 80% lower lets you finish the job and become your own Armorer. Firearm enthusiasts, law enforcement, military personnel, and law abiding civilians from all around the nation use this same concept to build rifles for self defense, hunting or hobbies every single day.
Some of the most popular companies for gun building communities are the following:
80-lower.com, 80 Percent Arms, Right to Bear, Daytona Tactical, Thunder Tactical, Anderson Manufacturing, JSD Supply, Polymer80, Steel Fox Firearms, 5D Tactical, AR15 SITE, Tactical Machining, Durkin Tactical, Delta Team Tactical, Davidson Defense, amd Matrix Arms.
Using these platforms, online users are able to browse company websites and select the list of parts or build kits they are interested in putting together. Most of these companies focus on AR platforms and offer a wide variety of selections from different AR platforms, including AR15, AR9, and AR10. Other buildable platforms may include AK47 and .22 Rifles, with some buildable handguns including Glock 17, 1911, and P80 pistols.
Does ghost gun building require experience?
The process of building your own firearms is not as easy as some fear mongering news outlets make it out to be. Ghost gun building does, in fact , require at least a moderate level of experience. Proficiency with power tools is a must, as the materials for any ghost guns, mainly aluminum and polymer, require power tools in their machining processes. “Inexperienced builders can face costly mistakes if they lack knowledge and accidentally ruin a lower receiver,” commented Burnside.
Since not all guns are the same, some are not interchangeable. Some are also “mil-spec”, meaning they meet military specifications required for M16 rifles and parts sold to the U.S. military. Some are not so expertly manufactured. Some parts may not fit well or fit at all and purchasing some options may influence the purchase of others. This demands a knowledge of the machining process in order to guarantee safe, effective results.
If an individual is not mechanically inclined, even a less difficult build such as an AR15 rifle can prove to be a difficult experiment. It can be extremely challenging and mistakes can cost a lot of money. This is one of the main reasons why criminals in pursuit of a weapon prefer to obtain completed firearms over building theirs from scratch.
Who teaches others how to build ghost guns?
The development of ghost guns in the gun community is catalyzed by a large community of builders that connect mainly through online forum groups. There is not a single entity out there who is the authority on ghost gun building, but the passing of information is a cumulative effort to further the development of custom gun building.
There are some companies which head the ghost gun market, providing their customers with instructions pertaining to specific builds – for example, Polymer80 and Anderson Manufacturing. It is important to note that, as long as they are mil-spec, there will be a lot more compatibility between build kit components as compared to ghost guns made from different specifications. For example, an Armalite manufactured AR-15 will not be compatible with parts made for a DPMS AR-15. The differences between the two are as follows:
- ✓ Uppers and Lowers have different dimensions/designs
- ✓ Armalite gas tube is too long
- ✓ Headspace for the BCG is different
- ✓ Barrel mounting systems are different
- ✓ Magazine catches are different
Building a ghost gun is not so cut and dry. Focuses on compatibility of parts, the necessary tools and knowledge to build, as well as the upfront cost to build make this hobby more exclusive to those who aren’t deterred by the potential inconvenience, should the build fail. While information about ghost gun building is widely accessible on the Internet, there are a few more critical, costly steps making it easier for potential criminals to simply purchase a serialized firearm instead. Especially with the availability of firearms of all varieties on the black market, the building of ghost guns is far from the first option criminals choose to obtain firearms with intent to harm.
Regarding the information circulating the web about DIY gun builds: the processes for illegal modifications on any serialized or unserialized firearm is strictly prohibited. The entire process is well regulated and the community is eager to police its own members. Many of the top forums have rules against any posts created to share information about illegal modifications of firearms.
Below are a few examples pulled from the biggest online gun building communities:
- AR15.COM – “Posting or linking to information on how to make illegal modifications to firearms or purchase illegal items.”
- r/Guns (Reddit) – “No illegal Firearms Modifications. No asking questions about illegal firearms modifications.”
- AR15 Builders Group (Facebook) – “The things that will get you banned immediately…Anybody offering advice that is illegal, like converting rifles to pistols, oil filters or illegal conversions.”
- AR15 FORUM – “We take the safety of our community very seriously. Any discussions, threads/posts knowingly and willfully advocating violation of a standing federal or state law of any state will not be tolerated”.
- r/Firearms (Reddit) – “Transaction of firearms or restricted components, defaming, doxxing, and any other activity that jeopardizes this subreddit and its members is subject to removal.”
- The Firing Line – “Topics and conduct that will not be tolerated…violation of any standing federal or state law of (any state) will get you permanently banned and your IP will be reported.”
On the other hand, it is actually illegal to have anyone mill out or complete a lower for you, especially if it is done as a service, because this implies the physical transaction of a firearm. This cannot be done unless it is expressly noted in the law, or the private sale of firearms is legal in your state.
How long does it take to build a glock style gun?
Glock style guns are known for their polymer frame and relatively low number of parts. Glocks typically have 35-40 parts in them which is much less in comparison to other manufacturers like Sig Sauer, which can range anywhere from 56-100 parts on average. Glocks are also known as some of the easier guns to modify, as the availability of aftermarket parts has skyrocketed since the 3rd generation of Glock pistols in 1998.
Polymer 80 is the main company producing 80% lower Glock kits, also called P80 Glocks. They supply these to retail companies around the United States as well as the consumer market directly. Their build kits come with a link that contains instructions as well as an 80 lower jig tailored specifically for their frame. Because the frame is polymer, it does not need a lot more than a dremel tool, a hand drill, and a filing tool.
The process is easier compared to other firearm types to build, especially when guided by the instructions provided. The machining process for 80% glock build kits can take up to 1 hour to complete. The building process involves a meticulous level of detail, so while efficiency is important, quality depends on the level of care used in the time it takes to complete the build. In fact, there have been a few cases where individuals building in a rush have faced either a simple malfunction or, in some cases a catastrophic failure resulting in injury and even death. While this does not occur often, there is an inherent risk that can be circumvented with the proper tools and care.
How long does it take to complete an AR?
The AR platform is highly modular, with the main reason for its popularity being its easy-to-take-down frame. Its receiver is built in two parts: the upper receiver and lower receiver. Simply fastened with two pins on either side of the receiver, getting into the internals of the gun takes very little effort. The parts of the gun are also easier to assemble and disassemble than some other platforms.
Depending on what method you use to build, the complete build process will vary quite a bit. Since ghost guns need to be made from 80% lowers, machining these parts is a required step.
Machining the lower can take up to 2 hours. A CNC machine will be able to completely mill out a lower in 15-30 minutes, and therefore yields the quickest time frame for the complete build process. However, if the individual does not have a CNC machine, the end cost of their AR build will be much higher than normal.
If an individual is using a drill press or a router with a jig kit, depending on the proficiency of the person machining the lowers, the process will take anywhere in between 30 minutes and 2 hours.
After the machining has been done, the assembly process takes place. This is the process of installing all of the parts into the newly machined lower, which has now become a firearm by law. Purchasing an upper assembly that has already been assembled takes 15-45 minutes, on average, off of your overall build time. Most of the time during the building process is usually spent on both machining the lower receiver and installing the lower parts kit. In total, a complete AR build takes at least an average of 3 hours, depending on the tools and skill level of the builder.
What tools do you need to complete a ghost gun?
Since most privately made guns are built from 80% lowers, with either composite or low tolerance materials such as Aluminum, typically some type of power tool with the capability of drilling/milling is required. This is in order to successfully complete the building of your firearm to a safe and consistent standard. The most common tools for this are handheld routers, hand drills, and drill presses.
Jig kits are also a critical component when completing a homemade gun. The purpose of a jig is to provide accurate dimensions while forming a protective barrier around any places that are not supposed to be milled. The jig itself is usually steel, with handgun frame jigs commonly made of polymer. Jig kits are not required to complete a lower receiver or the frame, but they are useful to the building process and are worth mentioning.
Common Armorer tools are also necessary to efficiently assemble ghost guns. A lot of the process can be done with normal household tools, but Armorer tools like roll pin punches, Armorer wrenches and the like are also important.
The tools for the average DIY gun build include:
- ✓ Workbench
- ✓ Vise Grip
- ✓ Armorers Wrench
- ✓ Torque Wrench
- ✓ Roll pin punch set
- ✓ Drill Press/ Router/ CNC Machine
- ✓ Jig Kit
Who is in the market for DIY gun builds?
Retired veterans, Law enforcement, Firearms enthusiasts, Military personnel, Competition shooters and 2nd Amendment supporting law abiding citizens are the typical consumer base for DIY gun builds and the customization market in general.
The value in a DIY gun build comes from its accessibility. Since 80% lowers are not legally considered firearms, they do not require the same process for acquisition as acquiring a complete lower receiver. In the majority of states, individuals can buy an 80% lower and have it sent right to their house, especially with the AR and Glock platforms, where outlets are basically flooded with aftermarket parts consumers can use to customize their builds.
The DIY market is composed of many different companies and community groups that have been the driving force for the development of the hobby. Beginning in 2004, after a ten year ban set by former President Bill Clinton, the top companies like Ruger, Smith and Wesson, and Springfield Armory went to work developing their own versions of the AR platform. The aftermarket came as a recourse, as the AR-15 patent was no longer held by one company: Colt. Deviations led to different specifications, but the main specification for most of the DIY builds would remain tied to the mil spec standard.
Glocks have been popular since the 1980s and, as such, have had a long history of aftermarket parts. Beginning with the Gen 3 series of Glocks, the aftermarket boomed as companies like P80, Shadow Systems, and others began work on developing DIY builds based on the Glock (OEM) Original Equipment Manufacturer. The popularity of new Glock models is almost always hit or miss, which is the main reason the aftermarket has such a big impact on the development of the gun as a whole.
The market of DIY builds comprises a mix of more legitimate brands and aftermarket companies that look to enhance the performance of these firearms, tweaking the specs from their more official counterparts. Especially when it comes to the aftermarket companies involved in the DIY gun hobby, they are often made up of passionate community members. The development of the DIY market is primarily a community effort.
The rate of ghost guns used in crimes is actually unknown, as there is not a single state agency that keeps data on the effect of ghost guns on the population compared to that of serialized firearms. This is likely due to the fact that, legally, ghost guns and serialized firearms are the same.
The premise around the idea that ghost guns cannot be traced is terribly misconstrued, as the term is used simply to describe the act of the National Tracing Center acquiring information of the initial transfers of a firearm used in a crime. Not being able to conduct an ATF trace does not make it more dangerous than a serialized gun, especially if a serialized gun has gone through multiple private party transfers. By the same logic, a gun that has had many owners through private party sales would be just as untraceable.
While it would be disingenuous to ignore the threat of potential criminals manufacturing their own firearms, the same threat has always existed with serialized firearms. Firearms manufactured before 1968 did not require federal serial numbers and, thus, may or may not have had them. There is no evidence to suggest that guns without serial numbers were more often used in crimes.
To be clear: there are certain types of firearms made that are illegal, pursuant to the National Firearms Act of 1934, the first piece of gun control legislation in the United States. This taxed certain types of firearms, while defining the nature of rifles, pistols, and shotguns. The act also defined any other firearm as an “Any Other Weapon,” (AOW), with the act also criminalizing fully automatic weapons.
Ghost guns, especially those bought from reputable online 80% lower stores, are not illegal in the eyes of the NFA, which clearly outlines the definition of certain firearms as well as the regulation of their actions. If ghost guns are made legal, according to this act, which was made to combat the organized crime happening in the 1930s, then these weapons cannot be considered more dangerous than serialized guns.
The political climate around ghost guns may be shifting, as attempts to regulate them in many states have already been made. Recently, President Joe Biden called on the ATF to draft a letter regulating the manufacture and sale of ghost guns on a federal level. This could mean that ghost guns may either need to be serialized or may be completely banned if the bill passes the senate floor.