On the morning of Nov. 14, 2019, a student entered Saugus High School with a ghost gun and shot five students. Three of the students survived, but two others, Gracie Muehlberger and Dominic Blackwell, did not.  Initiatives such as the GracieStrong Foundation were created in response to this tragedy to honor the lives of those killed and to prevent further gun violence, but the community devastation caused by the loss of Dominic and Gracie is irreversible.  

Following his daughter Gracie’s death, Bryan Muehlberger purchased a ghost gun online.  He faced no barriers. He was not required to present confirmation of his identity nor complete a background check.  He did not even buy the gun in his name; the package that arrived at his home was addressed to his daughter Gracie, proving the particular threat of ghost guns and the ease at which anyone, even minors, can buy a weapon capable of murder.

“We call it a ghost gun because it’s not traceable or detectable,” said Penny Okamoto, a twenty year champion of the gun violence prevention movement and the Executive Director of Ceasefire Oregon.  Ghost guns are encompassed by several distinctions.  They are unserialized, meaning that they are not recorded as a firearm sale and are untraceable if they are used in crimes, and they do not include security exemplars, which are a piece of metal included in guns which alert metal detectors. Ghost guns are most often sold in “do-it-yourself” kits. The base of these kits are 80 percent lower receivers, which are legally exempt from requiring background checks to purchase and can easily be made into functioning firearms with the other parts included. Because they are federally exempt from background checks and are untraceable without serial numbers, ghost guns create a dangerous loophole — anyone can access and purchase these deadly weapons and use them with a shroud of anonymity.  

Because of tragedies like the Saugus High School shooting and the discovery that the ATF recovered around 10,000 ghost guns in 2019, members of the gun violence prevention movement and the Democratic Party advocate that ghost guns need to be treated and regulated as what they are: real guns.  Countering the opinion that conservatives often take, Penny Okamoto explained, “You’ll get people who say, ‘Well, people are just going to continue to do this anyway, right?’  Well, should we just get rid of all our laws… And we do have a history of requiring that products that are made… have safety standards, whether they’re cars or airplanes [or guns].”  Requiring that all guns have serial numbers and security exemplars and that purchasers are cleared by a background check are basic safety standards, and yet ghost guns are exempt from them.

The federal government has yet to take official action to ban or regulate these weapons, but several states including New York, Virginia and Connecticut have passed ghost gun legislation.  In 2019, Connecticut passed “An Act Concerning Ghost Guns,” which banned ghost guns in the state.  While ghost guns are banned within Connecticut, there continue to be cases of ghost guns recovered in crimes across the state.  This is not a reflection of the bill’s effectiveness, but of the necessity for federal action to be taken regarding ghost guns.  Connecticut Attorney General William Tong, who has been involved in gun violence prevention legislation in the state for over a decade, was influential in the creation of this bill.  In an interview, Attorney General Tong explained the threat that allowing ghost guns to be regulated on a state-by-state basis poses.  “It’s very hard for individual states to enforce these laws when ghost guns … are made in other states and sold in other states, then trafficked into Connecticut.  So somebody may order a ghost gun, make a ghost gun in Massachusetts, and it may end up in Danbury [CT].  So it’s really important that the federal government act… to prohibit the sale and distribution of unregistered and unserialized firearms.”  

Before April, the federal government had yet to make a formal proposal to regulate ghost guns, but the Biden administration recently announced the proposal of a new ruling on ghost guns by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms within the Justice Department.  This proposed ghost gun ruling will require that the foundational parts of ghost gun kits must be serialized, the manufacturers and dealers of ghost gun parts will need to be federally licensed and that those who wish to buy an 80 percent lower receiver must undergo a background check.  While requiring background checks is a vital advance in preventing further violence by ghost guns, this ruling fails to require that these guns include security exemplars, which allow guns to be detected by metal detectors.  

The public commenting period on this proposed ruling closed on August 19.  In a recent email to reporters that included a public comment submitted to the ATF in support of the proposed ghost gun rule, Mayor Justin Elicker of New Haven expressed his concern about the threat that ghost guns pose to public safety. “As these kits and guns are sold at gun shows and online every day throughout the country, they undermine all of the life-saving policies that state legislatures have fought so hard to put in place.”  If the ATF does not adopt this rule and further federal action is not taken, this threat will only worsen, especially with developing technology such as widely accessible 3D-printed firearms.  

“Candidate Biden said he would ban ghost guns… President Biden is saying, ‘Ah, we’ll just see if we can get a background check on them,’” Okamoto explained.  “It doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of what we need.”  Members of the gun violence prevention movement are tired.  They are frustrated with being promised change and never receiving it.  It has been almost nine years since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, and, in those nine years, over 115,000 people have died from gun violence.  It has been nine years, yet in that time, the federal government has not passed a single law that directly addresses gun violence and regulates firearms.  

As Connecticut General Attorney Tong stated, “Any step forward is an important one.”  Whether the ATF’s proposed regulations on ghost guns will be adopted is currently unknown.  Even if the rule is adopted, we will still live in a nation where tens of thousands of people die each year because of gun violence, and we will still live in a nation where the federal government refuses to pass life-saving gun laws. Regulating ghost guns will certainly be a victory for the gun violence prevention movement, but it will only be one step.