County Board of Supervisors approves ordinance to outlaw ghost guns

a confiscated ghost gun
A confiscated ghost gun, as displayed by San Diego police in July 2021.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The county ordinance would make it illegal to possess or distribute gun parts without serial numbers


The county Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 Tuesday, Jan. 11, to approve an ordinance that both cracks down on ghost guns and requires all gun owners to keep their weapons locked up or locked away.

Chair 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.”

Ghosts guns are do-it-yourself firearms assembled by hand from parts that sometimes come in prepackaged kits. The parts are not classified as guns so they have no serial numbers, making them difficult — if not impossible — for law enforcement to track. The parts can be bought legally in most jurisdictions. No background check is required.

San Diego County sheriff’s deputies and San Diego police are confiscating ghost guns in soaring numbers. The amount of ghost guns seized by both agencies more than doubled in just a year.

The county ordinance would make it illegal to possess or distribute gun parts without serial numbers, treating unfinished firearm parts just like a completed gun. The new law also prohibits 3-D printing of non-serialized firearms and their parts.

Aside from banning possession of ghost guns, the ordinance requires gun owners to store their weapons safely, keeping the firearms secured with a trigger lock or locked away in a container.

Fletcher said that by regulating the production of ghost guns, “we can prevent these weapons from being in the hands of those who should not have them.”

He also said safely storing firearms “is just a common sense, responsible requirement” shown to prevent gun deaths.

The Jan. 11 3-2 vote went along party lines, with “yes” votes from Fletcher, Lawson-Remer and Supervisor Norma Vargas, who are Democrats. Supervisors Jim Desmond and Joel Anderson, who are Republicans, voted against the proposal.

Desmond, in voting no, noted that guns without serial numbers are already illegal in California, and that the parts to assemble a gun are easy to buy online.

“I do think ghost guns are bad, but I don’t think this ordinance is going to do anything to keep the 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 overregulation and more confusion about enforcement,” Desmond said.

Desmond suggested the board get an annual data-driven report on ghost guns. Fletcher agreed with the idea, and suggested expanding the report to cover data on overall local gun violence.

The county’s prohibition of unserialized 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 serial numbers. San Diego was the first city in the state to pass such a law.

The Jan. 11 vote was the first of two required votes to approve an ordinance. The next vote is slated for Jan. 25. If approved, it would take effect sometime in February — but parts of the law might not be immediately enforced to allow people time to come into compliance.

The ordinance would apply in unincorporated areas of the county.

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

Deputies confiscated 212 ghost guns in 2021 — just shy of a sixfold increase in two years.

The city of San Diego saw an even greater jump, with 77 ghost guns confiscated in 2019. Last year, they seized 545 ghost guns — a sevenfold increase.

Lawmakers are cracking down on the growing prevalence of ghost guns. Starting in July, California will require licensed vendors to handle the sale or transfer of unfinished gun frames, and that includes face-to-face background checks.