Oakland on Tuesday became the latest California city to ban components for easily assembled and untraceable “ghost weapons,” which have skyrocketed in popularity in recent years amid a spate of gun violence in the city.
The unopposed ruling aims to rapidly circulate firearms that can be ordered online and delivered without a serial number or customer verification.
Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan and Council members Dan Kalb and Noel Gallo proposed the ordinance. In search of a pass, Kalb and Gallo cited this as a key step to strike back at the city with firearms.
“We’re not pretending that one new law will end gun violence next month in Oakland or any other city,” Kalb said ahead of the vote. “But any additional thing we can do to make it a little more difficult, I think it’s worth the effort.”
The proposal was passed by mass vote, along with several other points, and most council members did not comment on it. A second vote, expected on February 1, is needed for the ordinance to become law.
Other communities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Berkeley, have passed similar ordinances over the past year. One such ruling, passed in San Diego, sparked a federal lawsuit from a coalition of local gun owners that is ongoing.
The laws are aimed at curbing the growing number of ghost guns being used on the streets amid what supporters say are lax state and federal regulations.
“More needs to be done at the federal and state levels, but this is what we can do at the local level,” Kalb said during a meeting on Tuesday.
Ghost Pistols are firearms that can be assembled at home – in as little as an hour – from parts that don’t have serial numbers on them, making them untraceable.
Current state law allows people to buy these firearm components online and have them delivered to their homes. Before collecting these parts, buyers must first apply for a serial number through the California Department of Justice, a process that includes background checks. Between 1,000 and 2,000 people, often referred to as firearm enthusiasts, apply for such serial numbers each year, according to the department.
But law enforcement says people don’t often look up those serial numbers, and the resulting ghost pistols have become a popular way to circumvent government firearms purchase regulations, often for illegal purposes.
In Oakland, 23% of the approximately 1,200 firearms seized by police officers last year were ghosts, according to the Oakland Police Department.
Last year, the San Francisco police seized 194 such weapons as of December 7, representing 20% of all weapons seized by the department. This number has grown rapidly in recent years: in 2016, San Francisco police confiscated just six of these handguns, and no such handguns were found in 2015.
In Los Angeles, 24% of the 8,121 weapons seized by police last year were ghost weapons. In 2021, LAPD also arrested 586 people who were banned from owning firearms but were caught with ghost weapons, according to Los Angeles City Council member Paul Krekorian.
“So that’s 586 people who would never have had access to regular firearms because they would be banned from buying them if they did a background check,” Krekorian said. “So this is a huge, huge problem for law enforcement… (and the driver of) the violence, the gun violence that Los Angeles is going through.”
A new state law, effective July 1, requires these firearm parts to go through retailers, meaning gun components can no longer be shipped directly to a customer’s home. It also requires most firearms component suppliers to be licensed by the state. And it requires buyers to pass a sort of government background check, similar to when people buy ammunition.
However, council members in Los Angeles and San Diego said they need to move faster and adopt stricter rules than at the state level. According to an analysis presented to the Oakland City Council, the new state law still does not require firearm parts to be given a serial number before the buyer takes them home.
“The key is we don’t want to just wait,” Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz said. “We want to do it now, not give an extra six months for the problem to get worse.”
The new Oakland law followed the example of most other cities in California and passed such laws, prohibiting people from owning, buying, selling, offering for sale, transferring, transporting, receiving, or manufacturing unfinished firearm cases or receivers – the two main components of a firearm – that do not have a serial number.
However, Oakland law also goes one step further by allowing civil fines of between $1,000 and $5,000 in addition to criminal penalties of up to $1,000 and jail time of up to six months.
“We’re trying to influence the violence that took place last year,” Gallo, who represents the 5th district, said ahead of Tuesday’s meeting. “We want to make it clear that here in Oakland we do not accept – and will penalize you for – the sale of ghost weapons and so on.”
Krekorian said Los Angeles leaders may enact similar civil sanctions in the near future.
“In recent years, ghost weapons have become an epidemic here in Los Angeles and across the country,” Krekorian said.