Ghost Guns: Are They Legal?

Ghost Guns

Ghost guns (home made guns) from “unfinished receivers” are increasingly popular, and need not be registered or bear a serial number, nor must the maker-owner pass a background check. The practice is deeply rooted in our constitutional history and tradition. Legal scholars have recognized that the Second Amendment’s guarantee of the right to keep and bear arms would be meaningless in practice unless the state afforded individuals the ability to exercise that right—which includes making their own guns.


What is a “unfinished receiver”?

A gun’s “receiver” is the part of the firearm that houses the mechanical components and projects the bullet. Someone using a finished receiver could assemble a functioning firearm by adding necessary additional parts, such as the stock, barrel, trigger component, and magazine. Because the Federal Gun Control Act (Laws Governing Firearms) includes finished receivers in its definition of a qualified firearm, someone purchasing a finished receiver would have to pass a background check and register the firearm.  An individual interested in avoiding a background check and gun registration process can instead buy an unfinished receiver (also called an 80%, receiver, or blank receiver) to make a “ghost gun” (so called because it cannot be traced). An unfinished receiver is a partially completed receiver that requires additional tooling to be completed. This kind of receiver is not technically a firearm and falls outside the regulatory scope of the GCA (and so does not bear a serial number). Unfinished receivers are legal to sell and distribute and are widely available online and at gun shows.

Why are “ghost guns” legal?

The  Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA)  mandated, among other things, that persons “engaged in the business” of dealing in firearms must be licensed by the federal government.  (18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(21)(C).)  This development made it illegal for an unlicensed person to make a firearm for sale or distribution.  (18 U.S.C. § 923.)  In addition, the law requires that firearms dealers must perform background checks on prospective purchasers and maintain records of all gun sales.  (18 U.S.C § 922(t).)

However, there is nothing in the GCA that prohibits an individual from making a gun for his or her own personal use. A non-licensed person may make a firearm, provided it is not for sale and the maker is not otherwise prohibited from possessing firearms (such as a convicted felon).  (18 U.S.C., Chapter 44; § 922 (d).)  Federal law imposes none of the same restrictions on non-licensed possessors, and as a result, homemade guns need not be registered and the owner need not undergo a background check.

Legal References

Need more information, visit the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives US Department of Justice common question page setup to answer questions about how receiver blanks are legal to sell, purchase and build into unregistered firearms for personal use.


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