What is a ghost gun? A soaring number are being used in crimes, report finds

A soaring number of "ghost guns" are being used in crimes in the U.S., according to a landmark new report from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The number of suspected ghost guns recovered by law enforcement and submitted to the bureau for tracing increased by more than 1,000% between 2017 and 2021. The number more than doubled from 2020 to 2021.

"It's really reflective of what happens when an industry intentionally circumvents the law to sell unregulated and serialized firearms," said Tanya Schardt, senior counsel at Brady: United Against Gun Violence, a gun safety advocacy group. "All Americans have really suffered as a result."

What are ghost guns?

Also known as "privately made firearms," homemade guns are often assembled from kits purchased online or 3D-printed. They don't require the typical background checks for purchase and do not have serial numbers.

Police recovered and traced more than 19,000 ghost guns in 2021

The data shows an "exponential rise" in suspected ghost guns recovered and traced by law enforcement, Schardt said. But she noted the numbers don't capture the full picture since most ghost guns are not sent to the bureau for tracing.

What's contributing to the rise in ghost guns?

The use of privately made firearms in crime is an "emerging issue," the report said. It credited the higher numbers of recovered ghost guns to increased criminal use, as well as increased education among law enforcement about how to identify the weapons.

"It's really important to acknowledge that ghost guns have become the weapon of choice for traffickers," Schardt said. "By allowing this unregulated industry to proceed for this time period, we've just perpetuated violence in communities that are already disproportionately impacted by gun violence."

What is the U.S. doing about ghost guns?

Last year, President Joe Biden announced new regulations aimed at stemming the proliferation of ghost guns. The new federal rules treat ghost guns as firearms under the Gun Control Act, meaning commercial manufacturers of the kits must become licensed and include serial numbers and commercial sellers must become federally licensed and run background checks prior to a sale.

Some companies are already trying to circumvent the regulations by introducing new products they claim fall outside of the definition of firearms regulated under law, Schardt said. "Further action is needed," she said.

Dig deeper

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ghost guns used in crimes doubled in 2021, report finds