There is an oft-cited statistic used by the Bloomberg anti-gun groups which states, essentially: “according to the ATF, 30% of guns recovered in crimes in California are ghost guns.”  This number seemed WAY off to me so I decided to investigate it.

First, most things I found looped back to an article in the Trace from May, 2019, claiming that the ATF had provided such information in an investigation.  The article did not name a source and did not cite anything other than its own investigation as the basis for the number.

Some further digging led to an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times which stated in May, 2019, the public information officer of the ATF branch in Glendale, California, stated 30% of confiscated guns in its vaults were “ghost guns obtained by agents in the course of investigations…”

This still doesn’t explain the statistic. Glendale is, obviously, not all of California, or even remotely indicative of trends in other cities which have much different demographics.  Moreover, I found the use of the term “ghost gun” suspect. Did this include only homemade firearms, or did it include firearms which had the serial numbers removed or which had otherwise been altered?  So I reached out to the ATF to ask where I could find the underlying data. And their answer was, in short – that data does not exist because the number is not correct.  Specifically, they said:

ATF is aware of some anecdotal reports of the 30% statistic, but that is not precise. That is because the estimate provided often include:

–           privately made firearms (aka ghost guns),

–          a large number of conversions devices (aka “switches”) that are defined as machineguns under the NFA,

–          and silencers (which are technically privately made firearms, but not germane to your question).

That said, the number of privately made firearms recovered in California is significant and increasing.

Additionally, ATF cannot provide a number of recovered crime guns that were privately made.  For a number of reasons, ATF does not believe that the number of privately made firearms that has been reported to ATF would be indicative of, or representative of, the number of privately made firearms actually recovered by law enforcement. ATF provides the ability to trace firearms to our law enforcement partners, but many do not submit privately made firearms. Additionally, ATF is often not the lead law enforcement agency in an investigation and may be unaware of local or state law enforcement agencies with privately made firearms in their possession. Further, the number of ATF recoveries is not representative of the total number of recoveries in a particular area. We would refer you to your local or state agency who may be able to provide a more reliable data point.

For clarification, in case you’re not familiar with the terminology, conversion devices that make a regular semi-automatic firearm into a full auto are very much so illegal, and while silencers or suppressors are legal if you go through the right process, neither one of them is an actual firearm.

So, there you have it. The ATF states it does not keep these statistics, it does not believe recovery from its agent’s operations would be the proper metric, and it doesn’t believe the number to be correct because it would include items which are not, in fact, what most people think of as “ghost guns” – homemade, unserialized guns. It does believe the number of these guns in use in crimes is significant and increasing.  But this is a far cry from saying 30% of guns used in crimes are ghost guns.

We have real problems to address, especially when it comes to violence. However, if we start making public policy decisions based on inaccurate reporting and made up statistics, we will never actually solve the problems we are attempting to solve because we will not have the proper data to do so.  Let’s focus on the things that are real issues before making up new ones.