People Are Panic-Buying Untraceable ‘Ghost Guns’ Online in the Coronavirus Pandemic

Ghost guns are typically sold as kits online and marketed as 80% complete, but they evade federal regulation because they’re not classified as real firearms by the ATF.
March 27, 2020, 5:45pm
"Ghost guns" on display at the headquarters of the San Francisco Police Department in San Francisco in this photo taken Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2019.

Business is booming for the DIY “ghost gun” industry, with manufacturers reporting widespread backorders and shipping delays due to a “pandemic buying surge.”

Ghost guns are typically sold as kits online and marketed as an 80% complete firearm. But they evade federal regulation because they’re not classified as real firearms by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms — even if the finished product can look and function exactly like any other high-powered firearm you might buy in a store.

The apparent increased demand for ghost guns comes amid a spike in gun sales generally. Driven by fears over coronavirus and a looming economic recession, Americans have flocked to gun stores across the country to stock up on ammo and firearms.

“We feel that sales are up like it's Black Friday.”

“This oughta be a time, historically, a time of year that guns don’t sell,” said Jerry Roberts, owner of Tennessee Arms Company, which manufactures firearm parts to federally licensed gun stores and sells ghost gun kits. “We feel that sales are up like it's Black Friday.”

At least 16 companies that offer ghost gun kits have put out statements apologizing for shipping delays, which they attribute to “exceptionally heavy demand,” according to screenshots compiled by Everytown for Gun Safety and shared with VICE News.

“Sales are up because when people become concerned about their security and the example is buying groceries and toilet paper and such. These are just one of the items that shows people are concerned something is up,” said Roberts. “It’s mysterious, which makes it even more frightening… Instead of learning the ways to properly wash your hands, people instead grab for a gun just in case.”

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Ghost gun kits were initially a niche hobby enjoyed by firearm enthusiasts — and some companies are marketing their wares as a fun project for people who are suddenly spending a lot more time at home due to social distancing.

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ATF doesn’t currently classify ghost gun kits as firearms, which means buyers get to evade federal regulation, and the finished product doesn’t have a serial number. For this reason, they’ve also become popular among criminals. And they create a huge headache for investigators: According to the ATF, 30% of all guns recovered at crime scenes in California last year didn’t have serial numbers.

Ghost guns also appeal to those who distrust government authorities. “Anti-government sentiment is a marketing tool for those manufacturers all the time,” said Nick Suplina from Everytown for Gun Safety. “They market the unserialized nature of the gun. They market the fact there will be no record of the sale anywhere.”

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Joe Z, the general manager of Ghost Rifles in Daytona Beach, Florida, estimates that about 15% of customers seeking out “ghost gun kits” are of the anti-government persuasion.

“The only gun you truly own is the gun they don’t know about.”

“Since this all started spiraling out of control, I’ve purchased, milled out, and assembled two new AR15 ghost guns,” one person wrote on the image board site 4chan last week. “The only gun you truly own is the gun they don’t know about.”

So far, officials in six states — New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Washington, Massachusetts, and New Mexico — have declared gun stores nonessential businesses, and ordered them to close down as part of a wider lockdown due to coronavirus. Three of those states, New York, New Jersey, and Washington, have state bans on ghost guns.

Los Angeles County Sheriff also ordered gun stores to close. Other users on 4chan urged readers to stock up on firearms or seek out ghost guns in the event that more states order gun stores to close down.

In states where gun stores are still open, some say that the increase in sales is being driven, in part by, by first time gun-owners. “We’re seeing a lot of people, particularly in suburban areas, who might have always been on the fence about guns, or maybe they never owned an AR-style firearm before,” said Joe Z, reflecting on his store’s uptick in sales generally. “The more society becomes different people tend to go from being on the fence about something to deciding their position.”

But as far as the DIY ghost-gun kits go, Joe Z estimates that about 80% of buyers already own firearms — pointing out that the process for assembling a DIY ghost gun isn’t actually that straightforward.

Cover: "Ghost guns" on display at the headquarters of the San Francisco Police Department in San Francisco in this photo taken Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Haven Daley)