Threats From Ghost Guns Severely Overstated

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File

So-called “ghost guns” are really just any firearm that’s created without a serial number. Making such weapons isn’t illegal. It’s not even illegal in many places that have supposedly banned these kinds of weapons–mostly because the bans only impact kits and not the act itself. Making a firearm yourself is something that a lot of Americans enjoy.

Yet some people are completely uncomfortable with the idea that someone could build a firearm and not have to get permission from the government to do so.

Among those are some members of law enforcement and a whole lot of the media. When those two get together, you get hysteria.

Advocates and researchers say there are potentially thousands of firearms in America that we don’t know exist, or have little data on where they came from — ranging from untraceable homemade “ghost guns,” to guns purchased legally that end up being trafficked, FiveThirtyEight details.  

There are about 400 million guns and about 100 million gun owners in the United States, according to Tom Chittum, the number-two official at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

Chittum was quick to add, “The vast majority of those [firearms] are never going to be used in a crime.”  But the existence of thousands of guns with no discernible ownership on the records has complicated the national push to get more guns off the street and increase gun control.

Prosecutors around the country are battling against a threat they can’t seem to track down, mainly because by nature, the threat is untraceable.

Except, that’s not what prosecutors do. They prosecute the crimes brought before them by the police. If they can’t track down where the gun came from, well, that happens. It’s little different than a gun with the serial number removed in that regard. Plus, a lot of times, they track it down and find out the gun was stolen. What then?

But how much of a problem is it really?

In 2019, police in Philadelphia recovered 95 ghost guns, according to data the department shared with FiveThirtyEight. Last year, it was 250. This year is on track to double that, with 389 recovered as of early September.

First, it’s good to actually have some actual numbers. Far too often, we get a lot of handwringing and maybe some percentages, but little in the way of numbers.

That’s because these numbers aren’t nearly as scary as they want to pretend.

Now, 2019 was a relatively peaceful year, all things concerned. It was before the pandemic and the post-pandemic meltdowns where everyone lost their minds and started getting violent.

According to data from the Philadelphia Police Department, in 2019, the city had 2,181 armed robberies with a gun, 2,615 aggravated assaults with a firearm, and 347 homicides (the department doesn’t break down murders by weapons type, apparently).  That’s 4,796 non-homicides committed with firearms, plus however many murders.

Even if the crime rate remained constant–it hasn’t, and I’ll get to that in a moment–so-called ghost guns would account for just 21.7 percent of the weapons used.

But the crime rate hasn’t remained steady. While 2019 is the last year with complete end-of-year tabulations, the last week of 2020 saw 195 armed robberies with a firearm. That’s just under seven percent of 2019’s total for the entire year. There were also 304 aggravated assaults that week, which is about 11.6 percent of 2019’s total.  There are no reports at all available for 2021, so it’s impossible to determine how much other crimes have increased, but we do know homicides continue to climb, so it’s safe to assume that armed robberies and aggravated assaults continued to rise.

So too have the number of “ghost guns.”

While the “threat” may look like it’s growing, it appears that the rate is increased at a similar rate as violent crime itself. Is the threat actually growing, or does it just look larger because crime has gotten so bad?

Dec 04, 2021 11:30 AM ET