By Chesa Boudin and Ruth Borenstein
Gun violence has been on the rise in San Francisco, in California and across the nation since the start of the pandemic. This gun violence epidemic is a uniquely American crisis: Despite the huge number of people incarcerated on gun charges, our gun violence surpasses any other nation in the world.
As district attorney of San Francisco and as the legislation and policy chair of Brady California, we share a commitment to ending gun violence. But it is clear that current approaches are inadequate. Waiting to respond until after a crime has been committed is too late for that victim. We must take steps to stop gun violence before it happens.
That’s why we are optimistic about a groundbreaking approach: a new lawsuit directly targeting the manufacturers and retailers of “ghost guns” — do-it-yourself firearms that are designed, marketed and purchased for the purpose of avoiding background checks and other gun laws. This lawsuit was filed by the SFDA’s office, along with the Giffords Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the San Francisco law firm Keker, Van Nest and Peters.
This week, the lawsuit grew exponentially: California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced that his office would be joining in this litigation. This news will make all Californians safer.
All guns are deadly weapons, but ghost guns are particularly dangerous. That’s because they are unregulated, untraceable and unsafe. Ghost guns are often sold online in pre-packaged kits and shipped directly to consumers without any background checks.
When they arrive, they can be easily — and quickly — assembled at home using common household tools. There are countless YouTube videos and websites that offer step-by-step instruction on assembling ghost guns, which is as easy as assembling a LEGO set. An inspector in the SFDA’s office ordered a ghost gun online and then put a fully functioning gun together in less than 30 minutes.
There are no serial numbers on ghost guns, so law enforcement cannot track these weapons when they are used in crimes. There is also no way to prevent people who should not have access to guns from obtaining them.
Children can order ghost gun kits online, with no questions asked, as shown by the experience of a 17-year-old member of Brady’s Team Enough, whose only obstacle to purchasing a ghost gun was finding one in stock. People who are prohibited from owning a gun based on prior criminal history or a domestic violence restraining order can purchase these guns. Moreover, these self-assembled ghost guns are never safety-tested to prevent accidental discharges — meaning someone could drop the gun and cause it to unintentionally fire and kill someone.
San Francisco has been deeply impacted by the spread of ghost guns. In the past four years, the number of ghost guns seized by San Francisco police has increased more than 2,000%. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors recently passed an ordinance, supported by Brady, banning the sale and possession of ghost guns.
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives found that 65% of the ghost guns seized nationwide came from California alone. Despite California’s strong gun laws and the possibility of harsh criminal penalties for gun possession and use — including gun sentencing enhancements that can add decades to someone’s sentence — ghost guns are flooding our community.
If incarceration helped prevent gun violence, we would have the lowest gun-violence rates in the world. Instead, we face unparalleled violence. As a result, we must develop new approaches to solving this dangerous problem.
We believe that we can and must hold the manufacturers and sellers of these ghost gun kits accountable. We also believe we can and must do so without further targeting or harming communities already bearing the brunt of gun violence. We are proud to be taking this fight directly to those who are profiting off of the suffering and death of Californians.
Chesa Boudin is the District Attorney of San Francisco. Ruth Borenstein is legislation and policy chair of Brady California.