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Congress must act to stop the rise of untraceable ‘ghost guns’

The pandemic seems to have accelerated demand for untraceable, unserialized firearms. A failure to update our gun laws will cost lives.

These are some ghost guns seized by the District of Columbia Police Department in 2020.Photo courtesy of D.C. Police/Photo courtesy of D.C. Police

Residents of Massachusetts can’t buy a gun from a dealer without a license and a background check, and when they do, the weapon’s serial number is recorded in case it’s ever used in a crime.

But none of those commonsense protections apply if they buy a “ghost gun” — a type of partially assembled, mail-order firearm that a growing number of gun owners have been acquiring during the coronavirus crisis.

The lack of regulation around ghost guns amounts to a dangerous loophole in state and federal law, one that has allowed convicted felons in Massachusetts, who would otherwise be blocked from obtaining a firearm, to purchase weapon parts.


Not only are there few obstacles to buying them, but ghost guns have no serial number attached to them, so they are impossible to trace.

“Ghost guns are essentially crime guns waiting for crimes to happen,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal last week during a press call. The do-it-yourself firearms are put together using kits ordered online or 3D-printed components. The unfinished parts themselves are not considered a weapon, so they’re not subject to most state and federal laws governing finished devices made by professional, licensed gun manufacturers.

These are glaring loopholes that a group of 15 Democrats in the Senate want to close, including both senators from Massachusetts. Led by Blumenthal, they introduced a measure in Congress last week to crack down on ghost guns. It’s true that laws tend to lag behind technological change. But in this case, a failure to update our gun laws will cost lives.

“When it comes to gun violence, the rise of ghost guns is the most dangerous risk we’ve seen in years,” said John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown for Gun Safety, which put out a comprehensive report last week looking at the threat of ghost guns. Because they are unserialized, untraceable, and can be bought without a background check, “they are a criminal’s dream come true,” he said.


No one knows the size of the ghost gun market. But a spokesman for the Massachusetts State Police told the Globe last fall that sales of gun kits and parts seem to be on the rise. In Washington, DC, law enforcement seized 116 ghost guns last year versus only 3 in 2017. But the coronavirus crisis appears to have accelerated demand. Recently, companies that sell gun kits online apologized to customers for shipping delays that they attributed to a “pandemic buying surge,” according to a news story.

Blumenthal’s proposal, which is similar to one he filed two years ago, would add ghost guns, their core parts (such as unfinished frames and receivers,) and the DIY gun kits to the definition of “firearm” under federal law. It also includes a requirement for background checks for those who purchase the kits and to add serial numbers on all DIY guns.

Senators are not seeking to fundamentally change gun statutes. “The only people who are going to have anything to worry about are people who intentionally are going around licensed dealers to buy these gun kits to make a gun without traceable serial numbers,” said Senator Chris Murphy, a co-sponsor of the legislation Blumenthal introduced. At least one Republican senator sort of agrees: John Cornyn told Politico that he might be open to treating both assembled and unassembled guns with the same standard.


That’s reassuring. Updating existing laws to close loopholes that allow for DIY untraceable weapons to proliferate is not exactly intricate gun reform; it’s a sensible step that’s overdue.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.