Ghost Guns: A Comprehensive Overview on its Laws and Regulations

    Ghost Guns
    A handgun symbolizing gun rights while framed against the United States constitution.

    Ghost guns are firearms manufactured before the passage of federal gun control laws in 1934, but that was never registered with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. These firearms are illegal under federal law, and however, they may still be legal under state law. This article provides an overview of ghost gun laws in the United States and summarizes the history of ghost guns.

    Where did the term “ghost gun” come from?

    The word came into use in the 1980s with the rise of machine guns. Machine guns are weapons designed to shoot multiple rounds per second. A typical bullet travels at 2,500 feet per second, so a machine gun fires several shots every second. To accomplish this, manufacturers developed automatic rifles with a single firing pin. These guns were popular among military personnel for target shooting. In 1985, a disgruntled employee stole one such rifle and began selling the guns to civilians. He called his product a “ghost gun.”

    The term “ghost gun” refers to a firearm not registered with the federal government. This means that it does not have serial numbers and cannot be traced by law enforcement if stolen or used in a crime. The only way authorities know who owns a ghost gun is through its serial number, discovered when the weapon is seized during an arrest or search warrant.

    What Makes a Gun a Ghost Gun?

    There are several ways to make a firearm a ghost gun:

    • A new model of a firearm without serial numbers.

    • An older model of firearm re-manufactured with parts from another firearm.

    • A firearm altered to remove markings that identify a previous owner.

    How Do you Know If your Firearm Is a Ghost Gun?

    There are two good ways to determine whether your firearm is a ghost gun if you own a firearm. First, look at the serial number on your firearm. If it has been removed or covered up, it could indicate that the weapon was made into a ghost gun.

    Can ghost guns be traced?

    No. Because ghost guns are untraceable, criminals often use them to commit crimes. And since they don’t have serial numbers, they’re impossible to track down.
    Is tracing the only reason police and lawmakers are concerned about ghost guns?
    No. There are other reasons why the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Congress are concerned about ghost guns. For example, law enforcement officials say they believe that some criminals use ghost guns because they don’t want their weapons identified as belonging to them. Criminals also may sell their guns before they get caught.

    Are There Other Ways to Prevent Police From Finding Out That Your Gun Isn’t Registered?

    Yes. One way to prevent law enforcement officers from finding out that your gun isn’t registered is to buy a silencer.

    Can you Legally Own a Ghost Gun?

    Yes. Federal law allows anyone to possess a firearm that does not have a serial number. However, possession of a ghost gun requires special licensing. You must first apply for a license to purchase or possess a ghost gun. The ATF will then check your fingerprints against a database of people who have confiscated their firearms.

    Have ‘ghost guns’ been used in crimes before?

    Yes. Although no one knows how many people own ghost guns, we know that these guns have been used in criminal activities. The FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System shows that more than 1,000 people were arrested while possessing a ghost gun in 2011. These arrests included those who had a ghost gun during the commission of a felony, such as a drug trafficking.

    Ghost guns
    Gun pistol and money dollars background

    How Can you Make your Ghost Gun Safe?

    Although a ghost gun makes it harder for authorities to trace it after a crime, that doesn’t mean you have to leave it sitting around with the barrel pointed toward the sky. First, make sure that you follow all state laws regarding gun ownership. For example, Nevada prohibits anyone from owning a handgun unless they are 21 years old. Second, you should keep your gun unloaded, locked away, and stored separately from ammunition. Third, store your firearm in a safe place where children aren’t allowed. Finally, consider getting a trigger lock or safety device like a bullet button to ensure that someone else doesn’t accidentally fire your gun.

    Have there been any efforts to regulate ghost guns?

    In 2004, the U.S. House passed legislation that would require federal agencies to accept information submitted by states regarding the sale of unregistered firearms. This bill was introduced again in 2007 but never became part of national law.

    What can you do if your gun is a ghost gun?

    The best thing you can do is contact local law enforcement officials and tell them what happened. They can help you report any illegal activity involving your gun.

    How are ‘ghost guns’ regulated?

    Federal law allows any individual to possess a firearm without having its serial number recorded on file with the government. States generally prohibit individuals from buying handguns that lack serial numbers. But the ATF has not taken any action to control ghost guns.

    Are ghost guns reliable?

    It depends on whom you ask. Some experts say that ghost guns are unreliable and could jam or misfire at any time. Others argue that ghost guns are just as accurate as other types of firearms.

    Can you transport a ghost gun?

    Many states restrict how much ammunition you may carry when traveling through a state line. The problem is that most ghost guns use magazines — which hold more than ten rounds of ammunition. So even though these magazines look like regular ones, they contain more bullets. If you travel across state lines with a magazine containing more than ten rounds, you could run into trouble.

    Is a ghost gun dangerous?

    If you accidentally shoot yourself or another person with a ghost gun, you’ll probably face criminal charges. In addition, if an unauthorized user fires a ghost gun, it will appear to be a stolen weapon.

    What is a Glock ghost gun?

    A Glock ghost gun is a replica pistol made using parts from an accurate Glock 17 pistol. It looks exactly like a genuine Glock. However, it cannot be fired because it lacks a live round of ammunition inside the chamber.


    The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives defines ghost guns as “any firearm manufactured after 1898, any frame or receiver of such a firearm, and any part designed and intended solely and exclusively for use in a ghost gun.” This definition includes both semi-automatic firearms and fully automatic firearms. While fully automatic firearms are illegal under federal law, semi-automatic firearms may be legal depending on where they were made. However, even though these weapons are permitted, they must comply with state laws, including registration requirements.


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