In-Depth: What are the rules regarding so-called 'ghost guns'?

Advocates on both sides of issue weigh in
Posted at 6:00 AM, Apr 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-28 10:26:54-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - A deadly shooting spree in downtown San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter has put a new spotlight on so-called "ghost guns."

In the wake of the shooting, which killed one person and injured four others, San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit announced the gun used was an untraceable "ghost gun" without a serial number.

He added that his department has seen a 169% increase in weapons like that over the past year.

"This is concerning," Chief Nisleit said Friday. "More than 1 in 4 of every gun we recover is a ghost gun."

RELATED: SDPD Chief says 'ghost guns' are up 169%

SDPD isn't the only local law enforcement agency seeing that kind of surge. The Chula Vista Police Department says they only seized 12 "ghost guns" in 2019. In 2020, that number jumped to 38. Already this year, they've recovered 16.

Numbers from the Escondido Police Department mirror those. In 2019, they impounded 13 guns without serial numbers. They seized 24 in 2020. For 2021, they've taken 13.

Oceanside Police say they haven't complied specific numbers. But a spokesperson told ABC 10News they have seen a "significant increase" in ghost gun seizures over the past few years, especially in their gangs and narcotics divisions.

State law allows for homemade weapons but includes several regulations to make sure they're safe and legal. Anyone who wants to build a gun at home must already be eligible to own a firearm in the state. They also have to apply for a serial number and permanently attach it to the weapon. The owner is not allowed to sell the gun or give it to someone else.

The gun itself cannot be prohibited by the state, like certain types of assault rifles. It also must meet specific safety standards.

New laws aim to add more regulations to homemade guns.

AB 311, introduced by San Diego Assemblymember Chris Ward, would make it illegal to buy or sell homemade guns or the parts to build them at gun shows.

RELATED: SD lawmaker proposes bill to ban 'ghost gun' kits

AB 1057would give law enforcement the ability to confiscate homemade guns and materials when serving a Gun Violence Restraining Order.

Gun rights advocates say those laws go too far.

"Sane, trained, law-abiding citizens are abiding by the law, but criminals are continuing to break the law," says Michael Schwartz, the San Diego County Gun Owners PAC Executive Director.

"It needs to be understood that nobody likes violent crime," Schwartz says. "But that there are different solutions and different preventative measures that people take when it comes to violent crime, and it should all be respected."

Schwartz says the fact that the state already has multiple laws in place for homemade guns, but is still seeing a rise in the number of seizures by police departments, proves that more rules will not translate into fewer "ghost guns."

But Ron Marcus, the President of San Diegans 4 Gun Violence Prevention, says there need to be more ways to track homemade weapons and enforce serial numbers laws.

"The big problem here is that anybody that shouldn't be getting a gun right now can and legally," Marcus says.

Ward says his bill doesn't take away anyone's right to own a homemade gun legally. He believes it will push people to buy them at established stores to help people stay within the law.

"We know that they have very strong processes in place to ensure that individuals coming in have appropriate background checks and that they're able to register and get informed about how to go through the registration process," says Ward.

Meanwhile, a change could be coming on a federal level. This month, President Biden ordered the Justice Department to create new guidelines, "to help stop the proliferation of these firearms."

Ward says he respects people's Second Amendment rights, but new laws are necessary to prevent another shooting like the one in the Gaslamp.

"These are untraceable, untrackable weapons," he says. "We need to do what we need to do for public safety purposes to rein them in."