If you’ve heard of “ghost guns,” you may have begun to panic about an epidemic of untraceable firearms lacking a federally-mandated serial number and assembled from parts purchased online or 3-D-printed. A recent New York Times article warned that ghost guns “can be ordered by gang members, felons and even children,” and deemed the rising number of seized ghost guns a “crisis.” The head of a gun-safety organization called ghost guns “the biggest threat in the country right now.”
The problem? None of this language is new. It echoes 60-year-old rhetoric first used to describe the country’s original post-World War II gun panic. Then, commentators warned about mail-order firearms; Lee Harvey Oswald had purchased a war-surplus rifle through the mail that he used to assassinate President John F. Kennedy. The Gun Control Act of 1968 restricted such mail-order sales, but similar gun panics followed, with “Saturday Night Specials” in 1970s, “plastic guns” in the 1980s and “assault weapons” in the 1990s.
Ghost guns are the latest iteration of this variety of moral panic, which distracts from and obscures the most direct source of the gun violence that plagues us: American gun capitalism, with its largely unrestricted production, distribution, marketing and sale of civilian firearms unequaled anywhere in the world. That system has placed a staggering 400 million guns in private hands in the United States, virtually all of them acquired through legal commerce — including the common firearm used in the Oxford High School shooting, which was purchased on Black Friday by the suspect’s father.
Moral panics over niche firearms like ghost guns enable Americans to imagine we are addressing an intractable problem. But by portraying the gun issue as an ethical one — delineating virtuous and unvirtuous uses and users of guns — gun panics ignore the economics at the heart of the problem and contribute to worse social outcomes, like greater criminalization, while failing to stem gun violence.
The dramatic expansion of the consumer gun market after World War II inflamed the rising fear that more guns meant more guns in the wrong hands. Even before the Kennedy assassination, Senate gun-control crusader Tom Dodd (D-Conn.) denounced “the traffic in handguns between mail-order houses and juveniles, young adult felons, drug addicts, mental defectives, and persons who generally would not be able to purchase weapons in their own communities because of their background.” He validated “responsible” gun ownership — he often spoke of hunting with his sons — and coded it as rural and suburban, White and male. He sought to reassure anxious gun owners that he only aimed to regulate unvirtuous gun use and users.