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July 07, 2023

What are ghost guns? Behind the alarming trend exacerbating Philly's gun violence problem

These homemade, untraceable firearms are a growing problem nationwide — a fact Philadelphia was confronted with after last week's mass shooting in Kingsessing

Ghost guns. It may sound like something out of a sci-fi action thriller, but the phenomenon is painfully real. Over the last few years, the use of ghost guns, which are essentially untraceable, self-assembled firearms, has been on the rise in Philadelphia and across the United States.

On July 3, the city got a fresh reminder of the troubling trend when 40-year-old Kimbrady Carriker left his Southwest Philadelphia home armed with an AR-15-style assault rifle that authorities say was a ghost gun and randomly opened fire on neighbors and passersby. Five people were killed and four were injured in one of the deadliest mass shootings in Philadelphia history. The 9mm pistol Carriker allegedly was carrying at the time was a ghost gun as well, authorities said.

In response to the growing use of such weapons in Philly, the city filed a lawsuit suing two manufacturers of ghost gun kits on Wednesday. So what makes these weapons so problematic? And just how serious is the problem in Philadelphia?

What are ghost guns?

Ghost guns are homemade, working firearms that do not have serial numbers, making it nearly impossible for law enforcement to trace who has owned a particular weapon and who manufactured it. In most cases, the weapons are assembled from kits purchased online that contain most, if not all, of the parts required to build a complete and fully functioning firearm. These kits contain "unfinished" frames or receivers – the part of the gun that contains the firing mechanism and thus qualifies it as a gun under federal law – which technically frees them from gun control regulations and enables just about anyone to acquire them without a background check. This means that convicted criminals, minors and others who can't legally buy a gun through traditional channels can arm themselves with relative ease.

Homemade firearms first surfaced in the 1980s among hobbyists, but since then, advances in technology have streamlined the creation and distribution of these ghost gun kits. These weapons have been used in a growing number of shootings over the last few years.

"It's not shocking when you think about it," said Adam Garber, executive director of CeasefirePA, an organization dedicated to ending gun violence in Pennsylvania. "Say you're someone with a criminal record and you can't buy a firearm through traditional means. You can order a ghost gun online and have it quickly come to your door and within a few hours without a lot of tools or skill, put it together and have something that is just as deadly as any other firearm that you would buy at the store."

As Brady United, a nonprofit that advocates for gun control, explains, these weapons present fundamental problems when it comes to limiting their distribution and use:

• There are no federal restrictions on who can buy ghost gun kits or parts
• There are no federal limitations on how many ghost gun kits or parts someone can buy
• Ghost gun kits and parts are relatively cheap
• Ghost gun kits and parts are intentionally marketed as unregulated and untraceable to appeal to those who want to avoid background checks and/or are gun traffickers.

How serious is Philly's ghost gun problem?

Nationwide, ghost guns are known to be a growing issue. The number of ghost guns recovered at crime scenes increased 1,000% between 2016 and 2021, according to data from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms. The proliferation of these weapons – and the frequency with which they are being used in mass shootings and domestic terror incidents throughout the United States – caused the Biden administration to issue new rules last year requiring serial numbers and background checks for the sale of ghost gun kits.

But just how prevalent is the issue in Philadelphia? They've certainly been showing up in the local news more frequently. In January, a Kensington man was arrested for allegedly trafficking self-assembled ghost guns out of his home on Tioga Street. That incident and the Kingsessing shooting are just two recent examples, and according to local authorities, there are many more. 

Ghost guns are inherently hard to measure accurately, but the available data offer plenty of cause for concern to local politicians and gun control advocates alike.

"It's really serious," said Garber of Philly's ghost gun problem. "We have seen a massive increase in ghost guns being recovered at crime scenes, which is the best data we have."

The Philadelphia Police Department keeps track of the number of ghost guns recovered at crime scenes like the site of last week's mass shooting in Kingsessing, but even the best after-the-fact data collection provides an imperfect measurement of the problem.

"That's honestly the tip of the iceberg," said Garber of the city's ghost gun data. "We're only recovering a fraction of firearms at crime scenes, so that means there's a lot more of these things used, purchased, used in assaults and used in shootings."

Nationally, the impact of last year's new federal regulations around ghost guns is hard to determine, other than the fact that the rules inspired gun kit manufacturers to slash prices and sell off as much inventory as they could before the changes took effect. Ghost gun companies have largely pushed back on the idea of new regulations, making an inherently hard-to-solve problem even tougher. 

For its part, Philadelphia is hoping that lawsuits like the one legislators just filed will help limit the sale and distribution of ghost gun kits. In the meantime, there remains an impossible-to-calculate number of these weapons on the city's streets. 

"I think what the city is trying to do is to be clear that you cannot intentionally try to get around safety laws and that when you do the consequences are not just economic," Garber said. "It's people's lives that are lost, people's brothers, their sisters, their children. And they have a moral and a financial obligation to make those communities as whole as possible."