State, federal government takes new action to track ghost guns

A rise in gun related homicides in California and across the nation coincides with more unlicensed gun kits being seized at crime scenes

SACRAMENTO – The Biden Administration announced a new federal rule last week to curb the proliferation of “ghost guns” in America. The guns are sold online as kits and can be assembled with minimal effort. The real problem is they can be obtained with minimal effort as well because the guns are sold without background checks and do not contain serial numbers making them difficult to trace and easy for criminals to get their hands on. 

These types of guns are not just a problem in major cities and have already shown up in the hands of criminals in rural Tulare County. On Dec. 11, Tulare County Sheriff’s Deputies were called to Woodville for an explosion in the 16800 block of Claremont Street. The explosion was caused by the volatile mix of butane burners heating a concentrated form of marijuana known as honey oil for its golden color. Clyde Gilbert, 59, and his son Clint Gilbert, 37, were both airlifted to Community Regional Medical Center for severe burns. More concerning was the criminal enterprise operated by his other two sons, 32-year-old Shane Gilbert and 26-year-old Randall Gilbert, who were illegally manufacturing ghost guns. During a search of the home, deputies found nine illegal guns including eight that did not have serial numbers.

Shane was arrested for possession of an undetectable firearm, criminal storage of a firearm, possession of a prohibited weapon, felon in possession of a firearm, felon in possession of ammunition and possession of a short barrel shotgun. Randell was arrested for possession of an undetectable firearm, criminal storage of a firearm and possession of a prohibited weapon.

Ghost guns, sometimes referred to as privately manufactured guns, are showing up at more crime scenes across the nation and in California. Nearly one-third of all guns confiscated by ATF in the state have no serial number, making them nearly impossible to trace by law enforcement, according to, one of the nation’s largest gun violence prevention organizations. 

The increased use of unlicensed guns correlates with an increase in gun violence in California. The use of ghost guns increased 91% from 2019 to 2020, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. California also saw homicides increase by more than 500 in 2020, a 30% spike and the largest jump in state history since record-keeping began in 1960. Aggravated assaults rose by 8.4%, and assaults with a firearm jumped by 39.2%, And although robberies decreased by 10%, the share of robberies involving a firearm rose from 23.9% of all robberies to 25%.

“Rural to urban, coastal to inland, you can’t talk about crime without talking about gun violence and ghost guns,” CA Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a released statement last week. “Everywhere you look, these weapons are more and more prevalent, unfortunately at an alarming rate.”

In Tulare County, gun related homicides increased in nearly every community and more than doubled in Visalia during the same time, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program. In the last five years, guns were used in at least half of all homicides in every city and 7 in 10 killings in Visalia, the county’s largest city, and all unincorporated areas of the county.

“But without similar regulations in all 50 states, these guns have easily found their way into our borders and into the hands of those who would do harm to others,” Bonta said. “That’s the biggest impact of the ATF’s announcement — it provides a clear, nationwide rule.”

Federal Ammunition
On April 11, Governor Gavin Newsom applauded the Biden Administration’s move to regulate the manufacturing of ghost guns. From January 2016 to December 2021, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) received approximately 45,240 reports of suspected privately made firearms recovered by law enforcement, including in 692 homicide or attempted homicide investigations. 

The “Frame or Receiver” Final Rule updates the regulatory definitions of “firearm” and “frame or receiver,” clarifying that weapon parts kits that permit someone to readily make a gun are regulated in the same way as commercially manufactured firearms. 

The rule makes clear retailers must run background checks before selling kits that contain the parts necessary for someone to readily make a gun, clarifies which parts of the gun must contain serial numbers, requires dealers and gunsmiths to add serial numbers to any unserialized guns they take into inventory, and extended the records retention requirement for guns retailers and federal firearms licensees. Over the past decade, ATF has been unable to trace thousands of those firearms because the records had already been destroyed. These records will continue to belong to, and be maintained by, federal firearms licensees while they are in business.

The federal rule will take effect in August, 120 days after it publishes in the Federal Register.

“I salute the actions taken today by the Biden Administration that align with the nation-leading efforts we have been implementing in California to address the scourge of gun violence threatening the safety of our schools, workplaces, houses of worship, and throughout our communities,” Newsom said. “California will not stand idly by as gun manufacturers, traffickers and others spread death and carnage on our streets. We will continue to lead efforts to save lives and work to ensure policies originating in California become a model for other states and the nation.”

While the federal law won’t take effect for a few months, California banned unlicensed guns nearly four years ago. In 2016, the California Legislature passed Assembly Bill 857 requiring residents to register homemade weapons with the California Department of Justice, who will provide a serial number that must be engraved or permanently affixed to the firearm. The law went into effect on July 1, 2018 and also prohibits companies selling the parts or kits in California from selling them to individuals who are not allowed to possess a firearm, such as convicted felons, registered sex offenders, the severely mentally ill and undocumented immigrants. In addition, the law reiterated residents are not allowed to assemble weapons that have not passed testing and certification requirements in the state.

Another law, Assembly Bill 879 set to take effect on July 1, 2022, will require companies who sell do-it-yourself gun kits to obtain a state business license before selling unfinished frames and receivers in the state and prohibits them from delivering to minors or anyone not allowed to possess a gun under existing laws. Passed in 2019, AB 879 also requires any of their employees to pass regular background checks if they handle any physical components of the gun throughout the manufacturing and packaging process.

Targeting Ghost Guns
The Governor is also proposing a slew of new laws this year to strengthen gun laws, regulate ghost guns, and quell the epidemic of gun violence seen across California and the nation. The Governor’s announcement came the day after a mass shooting in Sacramento, where at least five gunmen in rival gangs opened fire on each other killing six and injuring a dozen more in the crossfire.

“This week’s unconscionable act of gun violence is a tragic reminder of the lives that are at stake in this crisis that endangers communities across the country,” said Governor Newsom. “Today, the Legislature took an important step towards holding the gun industry accountable for mass shootings in our communities involving illegal firearms and protecting residents, utilizing the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that allowed private citizens in Texas the ability to sue abortion providers. So long as the Supreme Court has set this precedent, California will use it to save lives.”

SB 1327, authored by Senator Robert Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys), allows private citizens to bring civil actions against any person who manufactures, distributes, transports, imports into the state or sells assault weapons, .50 BMG rifles, ghost guns, or ghost gun kits. AB 1594, by Assemblymembers Philip Ting (D-San Francisco), Mike Gipson (D-Carson) and Christopher Ward (D-San Diego), would allow individuals and the California Attorney General to sue manufacturers and sellers of firearms for the harm caused by their products. AB 2571 by Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan (D-Orinda) would restrict marketing of firearms to minors. And AB 1621 by Assemblymember Gipson seeks to further restrict the proliferation of ghost guns by providing each component in a gun kit to have a corresponding serial number.

“I am proud to be working with Governor Newsom and his Administration to bring accountability to gun manufacturers and others who are flooding our streets with dangerous and deadly weapons,” said Senator Hertzberg. “The alarm bells are blaring. We could not have a clearer call for action to stop gun violence than what happened on Sunday at the doorstep of our state’s democracy. The Legislature will act.”

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