Ghost Guns: A Haunting New Reality

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April 14, 2021

Nicholas J. Simons



On April 7, 2021, President Biden announced multiple executive actions on gun violence with several specifically targeted at addressing the nation’s ghost gun problem. But what exactly are ghost guns, what challenges do they pose, and how would these actions help find a solution?

Ghost guns are homemade firearms that cannot be traced by law enforcement. They are an emerging problem across the United States, being used in crimes and recovered by law enforcement at a rate that continues to climb with each passing year. In 2020, law enforcement in New York State recovered 220 ghost guns compared to 72 in 2019 and only 38 in 2018, a 479 percent increase statewide over the three-year period, according to data from the New York State Intelligence Center. Similarly, the Baltimore Police Department reported a 400 percent increase in ghost gun recoveries from 2019 to 2020. In Washington, DC, the number of ghost gun recoveries jumped from just three in 2017 to 282 in 2020.

While these numbers may represent a relatively low percentage of total gun recoveries, ghost guns pose a unique and rapidly growing challenge. Law enforcement agencies are unable to trace and therefore prohibit the flow of ghost guns. While the federal government considers regulations, state and local lawmakers are exploring and enacting laws and policies designed to monitor and prevent ghost guns from falling into the hands of people who are prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms.

Read the full policy brief.

Listen to the Policy Outsider episode on ghost guns.