Despite their name, ghost guns are very much real and solid, and sightings of them are common and verifiable.

Not exactly legal, and not exactly illegal, they have quickly entered our state’s and our nation’s debate on gun violence and gun control. They are a particular problem in Baltimore and the subject of a recent legal settlement.

Because they are easy to procure, they often find their way into the hands of teenagers who are too young to purchase firearms legally. In just a handful of years, the guns have gone viral, increasing exponentially in number from a relative handful to thousands.

Here’s an explanation of the ongoing issue.

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Why are they called ghost guns?

Their name, which is somewhat of a misnomer, stems from the fact that they lack serial numbers that are engraved on all conventionally manufactured guns. This makes ghost guns very difficult if not impossible to trace, rendering them effectively invisible in the marketplace of firearms.

What are ghost guns?

Ghost guns are made from synthetic polymers, a fancy way of saying plastic. They are sold online for about the price of a smartphone as separate components that are easy to assemble once the buyer receives them. Technically, ghost guns are not sold as guns but as gun parts, creating a convenient and problematic loophole to firearms regulations. A ghost gun is typically purchased and shipped as a kit, often referred to as an 80% receiver, meaning the gun is 80% complete.

The guns can also be made from scratch at home with an inexpensive 3D printer, giving anyone the ability to become their own manufacturer of guns. Whether ordered online or crafted DIY style, the end product is a semiautomatic handgun with the average capacity to fire up to 18 rounds, more than conventional handguns, such as a Glock.

Why are they more problematic than conventional guns?

Buyers of ghost guns are not required to submit to a background check. That means a minor can buy one. So can someone with a criminal history. Without serial numbers, ghost guns cannot be traced, making sales of them impossible to track and regulate.

How widespread have they become in Baltimore?

From 2021 to 2023, 1,253 ghost guns were recovered and logged into evidence by the Baltimore Police Department, more than any other weapon. This is despite a 2022 ban in Maryland on the sale of firearms without a serial number. Since the ban took effect in June 2022, Baltimore police have recovered 596 ghost guns. So far in 2024, police have recovered more of the weapons than through the same period in 2023.

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Who makes them, and are they accountable to law enforcement?

One of the largest manufacturers and distributors of ghost gun parts is a Nevada-based company called Polymer80, which the city of Baltimore sued in June 2022, alleging public nuisance among other things. The company settled the suit for $1.2 million this week. The settlement ends sales and advertising of Polymer80 products in the state and prohibits dealers in neighboring states from selling parts to Maryland residents.

Other locales have also sued Polymer80, resulting in bans in Washington, D.C., and California, but Baltimore’s suit goes the furthest yet in restricting the company.

Are ghost guns legal?

In some places, yes. Although sales of ghost guns have been curtailed locally, a national policy has yet to be established, but efforts are underway. In 2022, President Joe Biden ordered the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to adopt a rule that stopped the sale of gun parts without a serial number by essentially broadening the definition of firearms to include ghost gun kits. Although the order doesn’t ban the sale of kits, it requires kit makers to apply serial numbers and dealers to conduct background checks.

The order did not change the market overnight. Loopholes, inconsistent enforcement and court challenges persist. The U.S. Supreme Court has so far allowed the order to remain in effect despite the challenges in lower courts. None of these regulations applies to someone who makes their own gun at home for their own use, which is legal. In Maryland at least, it’s illegal to make guns and sell them without a license.

Despite changes in policies and laws, sales of ghost guns remain robust nationwide and will likely remain challenging to regulate no matter what laws are passed.

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What’s the deal with ghost guns?

One way to look at them is to compare them to other products enabled by the swift advance of technology and consumer demand. As is often the case, laws and regulations were slow to keep up with the technology that enabled ghost guns. Similarly, Airbnb circumvented the lodging industry; municipalities needed time to levy taxes, require licensing and establish regulations that control how Airbnb is used. For some time, Amazon was not required to collect sales taxes, and companies such as Uber operated outside labor laws. When capitalism and financial incentive are pitted against regulation, the money usually wins.

Hugo Kugiya is a reporter for the Express Desk and has formerly reported for the Associated Press, Newsday, and the Seattle Times.

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