‘We’re seeing an explosion:’ Sheriff Tom Dart, state Sen. Jacqueline Collins take aim at ghost guns, propose legislation to ban the untraceable weapons

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart Thursday announced proposed legislation to ban ghost guns — homemade, untraceable firearms — which increasingly are being recovered on the county’s streets.

“We’re seeing an explosion,” Dart said at a news conference at a sheriff’s station in Maywood. “We’re seeing more and more.”

Ghost guns often are assembled from kits and are not marked with serial numbers like normal guns, making them harder to track. That means the gun parts can be purchased without a background check — a standard requirement for the purchase of a standard firearm from a federally licensed dealer.

The new legislation would ban the sale of ghost gun kits immediately and ban any privately assembled firearms unless they are registered with the state and marked with a serial number. The legislation also allows for a six-month grace period to let current ghost gun owners register them.

Once the loophole is closed, a first violation would be a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by as much as a year in jail. Any subsequent offense would be a Class 3 felony, punishable by a prison sentence of five to 10 years.

Dart is partnering on the proposal with Illinois state Sen. Jacqueline Collins. She was not at the news conference but said in a statement that gun violence is “plaguing Illinois’ Black and brown communities.”

“The proliferation of guns in our country and in our state drives this problem. Getting nonserialized ghost guns off the streets is a step forward in addressing violence so we can start healing our communities,” she said.

The bill announced Thursday comes a week after state Senate Republicans announced their own anti-crime legislation aimed at enhanced penalties for people possessing illegal guns and other measures, such as stiffer punishments for criminals convicted of straw purchasing — when someone buys a gun legally but on behalf of someone not allowed to own one.

The proposal runs counter to measures championed by Democratic state legislators, who have a majority in the General Assembly and have been characterized by their GOP counterparts as being too lenient on violent crime.

“The public safety of the people of Illinois is so important,” said Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, calling for the GOP proposals to be introduced in next week’s legislative session. “We want each legislator to be held accountable (to) the citizens of Illinois. Are they going to continue to coddle violent offenders?”

Delphine Cherry is the board co-chair of the Chicago chapter of the Brady Campaign, one of the oldest gun violence prevention organizations in the country and one of four such groups supporting the new legislation, along with Giffords Law Center, Everytown for Gun Safety and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

Cherry, who has lost two children to gun violence, spoke at the news conference in support of the proposed legislation and said she urges every member of the General Assembly to “take this bill seriously and ensure that it becomes a law.”

Chicago police confiscate thousands of firearms off the city streets each year, and the number of ghost guns typically has been a small percentage of those seizures. But the number has been on the rise compared with past years, authorities said, particularly in 2021.

In response to an open-records request by the Tribune in late June, the Chicago Police Department said it doesn’t track the number of its confiscated guns that are deemed “ghost guns.” But the department does track the number of guns confiscated that do not have serial numbers — a category that would include ghost guns.

From January through mid-June, Chicago police confiscated 245 guns that did not have serial numbers, which is more than were seized in all of 2020 and each of the four full years before that, according to statistics provided in response to the records request.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a measure this summer that’s intended to better regulate private gun sales. Among other provisions, it requires background checks to be conducted through a federally licensed gun dealer or online through the Illinois State Police for private sales. It also requires state police to set up a database to track all guns that are reported stolen to compare with gun transfer records.

But ghost guns still could likely skirt both of those provisions.

Concerns over such weapons have even become part of the national debate on gun control. The number of ghost guns recovered by law enforcement increased nearly 400% across the country between 2016 and 2020, during which time more than 8,700 ghost guns were found, according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

In May, President Joe Biden’s administration proposed a series of new regulations with respect to ghost guns, including requiring retailers to run background checks before selling kits that make it easy for someone to assemble a weapon at home.

The new rules also would require manufacturers to include a serial number on the firearm “frame or receiver” in the easy-to-build kits. They would require federally licensed firearms dealers to add serial numbers to so-called 3D-printed guns or other “un-serialized” firearms they inventory.

The group Everytown for Gun Safety has said ghost guns are attractive to white supremacists and other extremists who’ve used online forums to talk about how to make them.

Gun rights proponents have dismissed the term “ghost gun” as a political dog whistle used by gun control groups instead of merely referring to the weapons as “undetectable firearms.” At least one gun rights advocacy group has argued there are existing laws — such as the 1988 federal Undetectable Firearms Act — that heavily regulate all firearms, including those deemed “undetectable.”

“There has been a lot of media attention recently regarding so-called ghost guns,” the National Shooting Sports Foundation said on its website. “It is important to note that this term is one created by anti-gun groups and the homemade firearms to which they are referring don’t present a public safety problem.”

American hobbyists have long been able to make firearms legally, the group said.

“It has allowed individuals who are passionate about building their own firearms to assemble them in their homes,” the group says. “This is the exception, not the rule. The overwhelming majority of firearms are bought through commercial sales, produced by manufacturers and sold by retailers that are federally licensed and regulated.”

Dart said Thursday there are a number of ways for collectors and enthusiasts to “do what they need to do,” but he maintains there’s no reason a person would have or use any kind of ghost gun — unless they’re planning to commit a crime.

“The last thing we need in our community right now is not just more guns, but more guns that can’t be traced,” he said.

The new legislation, Dart suggested, is “very straightforward” and a matter of common sense, especially with regard to reducing gun violence in the Chicago area.

“This is something we need to move on and move on quickly, and we don’t need to talk more as far as the rationale,” Dart said. “It’s here.”

Shanzeh Ahmad reported from Chicago and Jeremy Gorner reported from Springfield. Chicago Tribune reporter Dan Petrella contributed from Chicago.