Colorado on the verge of banning ghost guns as it awaits governor’s signature

An ATF agent poses with homemade rifles, or “ghost guns,” at an ATF field office in Glendale, Calif in Aug., 2017. There’s a growing industry of companies that sell gun kits, instructions, and do-it-yourself components online to help people build their own guns.

A measure to ban ‘ghost guns’ — homemade weapons that are untraceable by authorities — is headed to the governor’s desk.

Once law, it will be illegal to construct or own a gun without a manufacturer's serial number on it. The policy would however allow a certain period of time for people who currently have these types of weapons to get into compliance.

Gov. Jared Polis highlighted outlawing unserialized weapons as a priority during his State of the State address in January and is expected to sign the bill. 

“Increasingly we're seeing ghost guns used in gun crime,” Polis told CPR’s Colorado Matters. “We’ve got to find a way to prevent the genie from getting out of the bag on ghost guns because it threatens to undermine all the other gun safety measures that Colorado has, including universal background checks.”

The term ‘ghost guns’ covers firearms that are crafted at home using a 3D printer or a do-it-yourself mail-order kit. They make it possible for someone to obtain a gun without a background check. 

Supporters say it’s an issue of safety and accountability, especially for crime victims. 

“When a firearm is recovered at the scene of a crime, law enforcement has no ability to understand the chain of ownership of that firearm. Where is the justice for families?” said Democratic Rep. Andrew Boesenecker of Fort Collins, one of the main sponsors of Senate Bill 279

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
State Rep. Andrew Boesenecker, Friday, April 22, 2022.

He and other backers see it as a tool to help law enforcement and district attorneys, and combat gun trafficking. 

“As we continue to see the widespread proliferation of unserialized firearms in our communities, I believe we have an obligation as a body to address that concern,” said Boesenecker. 

There have been reports that the accused shooter in the Club Q attack in Colorado Springs and the student who shot administrators at Denver’s East High School earlier this year before killing himself, both possessed ghost guns. 

The measure has backing from some prominent Republicans outside of the statehouse, including outgoing Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers and Arapahoe County District Attorney John Kellner, who ran for attorney general in 2022, but inside the building, it has been a highly partisan issue. 

Republican lawmakers argued that requiring all guns to have serial numbers could eventually lead to a gun registry and confiscation.

“They see the end goal. Serialization leads to registration,” said Republican Rep. Ty Winter of Las Animas County, of the concerns he hears from the constituents in his rural district.  He said it would lead to voluntary buyback, “which leads to mandatory buyback, which leads to confiscation. They believe this is another first step for the end game of confiscation of firearms from American citizens.”

Ghost guns is among the slate of stricter gun laws Democrats have passed this session. The others increase the purchase age for all firearms to 21, enact a mandatory three-day waiting period for gun buys, make it easier for people to sue a firearm manufacturer, and expand the state’s extreme risk protection order to allow more people to request the temporary removal of someone’s firearms. 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Republican state Rep. Ty Winter at the state Capitol, March 1, 2023.

Polis has already signed those into law and lawsuits are underway from gun rights groups to block them.

“This legislative session has been about the worst I recall on all fronts — not just guns,” said Taylor Rhodes, the head of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners in a tweet. “With this said, we should be VERY proud of our victories this session. More to come in the courts!”

Not every gun bill proposed this year passed — a ban on so-called assault weapons failed in its first committee when some Democrats joined Republicans in opposition. 

Rep. Winter and other 2nd Amendment supporters say they are tired of being painted as bad people in the debate over the causes of gun violence. 

Opponents believe “that gun owners are okay with gun violence and we don't want to protect kids in schools, which is the farthest from the truth,” he said.

Republicans also say the ghost guns ban would be unenforceable since the state would not prohibit people from learning from online kits. Democratic lawmakers say they believe it will still make a difference. 

“There will be black market guns, gray market guns, people will still break this law, I'm sure, and print things at home on 3-D printers,” said Democratic Sen. Chris Hansen, a main sponsor.  “But we are making a very clear statement that we are not going to allow ghost guns in the state of Colorado.”