Home / Crime / Articles / Ghost guns sent to the ATF have more than tripled since 2019

Privately made firearms (PMFs) are firearms legally assembled by someone other than a licensed manufacturer. “Buy-build-shoot kits” containing pre-manufactured and dissembled firearms make it easy to assemble a gun at home. People can also legally make guns with a 3D printer.

From 2016 to 2021, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) received around 45,000 reports of suspected PMFs that were used in crimes, including 692 homicides or attempted homicides. A new ATF report reveals that the number of privately made firearms that law enforcement submitted to the ATF tripled from 2019 to 2021, from nearly 6,000 to over 19,000.

Ghost guns chart 1

PMFs are also known as “ghost guns” because they often lack a serial number by which firearms produced by licensed manufacturers can usually be identified.[1] Other PMFs have counterfeit or duplicative markings that are easy to mistake for authentic serial numbers, making it especially difficult to trace a PMF used in a crime. From 2017 to 2021, the ATF successfully traced approximately 1% of submitted PMFs to their original purchasers.

In 2022, the Justice Department made PMFs subject to the same rules as traditional firearms, meaning manufacturers of buy-build-shoot kits now need to serialize their firearms and sellers must conduct background checks, among other requirements.

The increase in trace submissions indicates both a rising trend in the criminal use of PMFs and increased awareness of PMFs among local, state, and international law enforcement agencies, for whom the ATF has conducted trainings since 2020. In 2021, the ATF trained more than 1,700 law enforcement agencies on PMF identification.

What is the most popular privately made firearm?

Pistols were the most common type of traced PMF, comprising 59% of all PMFs traced by the ATF from 2017–2021.

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However, privately made pistols weren’t always this common. In 2017, rifles made up 35% of all recovered PMFs, a higher share than pistols (19%). Since then, rifles have declined as a share of PMFs from 30% in 2018 to 10% in 2021.

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Ultimately, law enforcement’s ability to properly identify PMFs still remains largely limited, leading the ATF to conclude that the current data substantially undercounts the actual number of PMFs recovered in crimes.

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PART III: Crime Guns Recovered and Traced Within the United States and Its Territories

Some government sources use the term "ghost gun" interchangeably with "privately made firearm", while others specify that "ghost guns" are specifically PMFs without serial numbers. Government data is not currently available about what share of PMFs have serial numbers.