County supervisors pass ordinance to ban ghost weapons

The county board of supervisors voted 3-2 Tuesday to pass an ordinance that both cracks down on ghost weapons and requires all gun owners to keep them locked up or in a safe place.

President Nathan Fletcher, who introduced the policy change with Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer, said both actions «have the potential to save lives and increase safety in our communities.»

Ghost pistols are firearms that are assembled by hand from parts that sometimes come in prepackaged kits. The pieces are not classified as weapons, so they do not have a serial number, which makes it difficult – if not impossible – for law enforcement to track them. Parts can be legally purchased in most jurisdictions. You do not need to check your criminal record.

San Diego County Sheriff’s Deputies and San Diego Police are seizing ghost weapons in increasing numbers. The number of ghost weapons seized by both agencies has more than doubled in just one year.

The county ordinance would make it illegal to possess or distribute parts of weapons without a serial number, treating unfinished firearm parts only as a complete weapon. The new law also prohibits 3D printing of non-serialized firearms and their parts.

In addition to prohibiting the possession of ghost weapons, the ordinance requires gun owners to store them safely, keeping firearms secured with a trigger lock or locked in a container.

Fletcher said that by regulating the production of ghost weapons, «we can prevent these weapons from being in the hands of those who shouldn’t have them.»

He also said that the safe storage of firearms «is just a requirement of common sense and responsibility» shown to prevent deaths from firearms.

Tuesday’s vote was 3-2, with the affirmative votes of Fletcher, Lawson-Remer and Supervisor Norma Vargas, who are Democrats. Supervisors Jim Desmond and Joel Anderson, who are Republicans, voted against the proposal.

Desmond, voting against it, pointed out that guns without a serial number are already illegal in California, and that parts to assemble a gun are easy to buy online.

«I think ghost weapons are bad, but I don’t think this ordinance is going to do anything to stop bad guys from getting them,» Desmond said.

He also noted that the state already has safe storage laws. «An ordinance without an enforcement plan creates over-regulation and more confusion about enforcement,» Desmond said.

Desmond suggested that the board obtain an annual report based on data on ghost weapons. Fletcher agreed with the idea, and suggested expanding the report to cover data on general local gun violence.

The county’s ban on non-serialized gun parts follows a similar move by the city of San Diego, which in September made it illegal to buy and sell gun parts without a serial number. San Diego was the first city in the state to pass such a law.

Tuesday’s vote was the first of two needed to pass the ordinance. The next vote is scheduled for Tuesday, January 25. If passed, it will take effect sometime in February, but some parts of the law may not be applied immediately to give people time to comply.

The ordinance would apply to unincorporated areas of the county.

Law enforcement agencies say they are seeing more and more ghost guns on the streets each year. In 2019, local sheriffs seized 36 ghost weapons in the county. In 2020, that number nearly doubled to 70 ghost weapons.

Sheriff’s deputies seized 212 ghost weapons in 2021, just a six-fold increase in two years.

The city of San Diego saw an even bigger jump, with 77 ghost guns seized in 2019. Last year, they seized 545 ghost guns, a seven-fold increase.

Lawmakers are cracking down on the growing prevalence of ghost weapons. Starting in July, California will require licensed sellers to handle the sale or transfer of unfinished gun frames, and that includes an in-person criminal background check.