The authorities say “ghost guns,” untraceable firearms that can be made from do-it-yourself kits, are increasingly being used in violent crimes like murders and assaults.
Aug. 18, 2021Updated 2:19 p.m. ET
San Francisco’s district attorney on Wednesday sued three online retailers for selling “ghost guns,” untraceable firearms that can be made from do-it-yourself kits, part of an intensifying nationwide effort to stem the flood of deadly homemade weapons into American cities.
In a civil complaint filed in California Superior Court, District Attorney Chesa Boudin accused the companies — G.S. Performance, Blackhawk Manufacturing Group and MDX Corporation — of marketing a range of products in the state that furnish buyers with parts and accessories that can be quickly assembled into a functional firearm.
The suit claims that the companies, which explicitly claim their products comply with federal and state laws, are targeting buyers who want to buy guns without traceable serial numbers and to evade criminal background checks. The plaintiffs are seeking to outlaw sales of such parts.
The companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
While the popularity of ghost guns is growing nationwide, California has seen a particularly dramatic increase in the use of untraceable firearms in shootings coinciding with an overall spike in gun-related crimes.
“Ghost guns are a massive problem in San Francisco — they are becoming increasingly involved in murders, attempted murders, and assaults with firearms,” said Mr. Boudin, who filed the lawsuit in conjunction with the gun control group founded by former Representative Gabrielle Giffords.
“We know that the rise in gun violence is connected to the proliferation of, and easy access to, guns that are untraceable, guns that are easier to obtain by people who would be otherwise prohibited by law from getting them,” he added.
Homicides in California jumped by about 27 percent from 2019 to 2020, to about 2,300, the largest increase in decades, and the rise has continued this year, according to the California Department of Public Health.
In 2020, 44 percent of guns recovered in homicide cases in San Francisco were ghost guns, compared with just 6 percent in 2019, the police chief, Bill Scott, told the city’s board of supervisors in May.
Earlier this year, Chief Michel Moore of the Los Angeles Police Department told reporters that ghost guns — assembled from parts that can be purchased for several hundred dollars — now account for a third of all weapons recovered by his department.
In May, Attorney General Merrick Garland proposed closing a federal regulatory loophole that has allowed the sale of gun components used in homemade kits on the grounds that individual parts do not, when sold individually, constitute a working “firearm” subject to the same rules as licensed handguns.
“Criminals and others barred from owning a gun should not be able to exploit a loophole to evade background checks and to escape detection by law enforcement,” Mr. Garland said at the time, adding that the change would “make it easier for law enforcement to trace guns used to commit violent crimes.”
But the process of reviewing and implementing the new rule is taking months, and local governments, gun control groups and crime victims are eager to take immediate action as the crisis intensifies.
Earlier this month, two Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies who were grievously wounded in an ambush sued Polymer80, a Nevada company that is the largest manufacturer of ghost gun components, for selling an “untraceable home-assembled gun kit” to a felon who has been charged with shooting the officers as they sat in a patrol car in Compton last September.
In February, the City of Los Angeles and Everytown for Gun Safety, a group founded by the former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, sued Polymer80 after a 16-year-old student used the company’s branded parts in a shooting at Saugus High School that left three children dead.
The company has responded by saying that its products are not “firearms” as defined by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and thus do not require serial numbers or background checks.
“While the Complaint quotes definitions for ‘firearm’ and ‘handgun’ under federal law, it does not adequately explain how Defendants’ products meet the various technical elements of each of those definitions,” wrote Sean A. Brady, the company’s lawyer in response to the suit in Los Angeles.
Gun rights groups, including the National Rifle Association, have opposed the rules changes proposed by Mr. Garland, arguing that they are an infringement on Second Amendment rights that will restrict the legal trade of gun parts.
But the San Francisco lawsuit, and others like it, claims companies that sell components used in ghost guns are engaging in deceptive business practices and need to be stopped.
“All of these players are culpable,” said Hannah Shearer, the litigation director for the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “These kits are designed to be untraceable and everybody knows it.”