San Diego bans firearm parts without serial numbers to combat ‘ghost guns’

A woman speaks at a lectern
San Diego Councilmember Marni von Wilpert speaks at a media briefing about a proposed ordinance to ban ‘ghost guns’ in the city.
(Kristian Carreon / For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

In response to the proliferation of “ghost guns,” the San Diego City Council this week approved a ban on the sale and possession of gun frames and firearms that lack a serial number.

“Today we are here to take action to combat the proliferation of non-serialized, nontraceable ghost guns because we have had enough,” Councilmember Marni von Wilpert, who introduced the ordinance, said at Civic Center Plaza before the council meeting. She was joined by advocates of gun violence prevention, who urged the City Council to approve the measure.

In recent years, the number of ghost guns San Diego police have confiscated has skyrocketed. By July 28, police had recovered 255 ghost guns, more than the 211 ghost guns seized all of last year.

Ghost guns, or guns without serial numbers, often end up in the hands of criminals, gang members or others who are legally prohibited from having guns.


The gun frames are legally sold in kits along with other parts. City and police officials say that the parts are easily assembled and that the process creates loopholes in background check requirements and state law, which requires that guns be marked with serial numbers.

The state Department of Justice issues unique serial numbers to applicants who meet a set of requirements, including passing a background check.

Without serial numbers, law enforcement agencies are unable to trace the weapons when they investigate crimes.

Dubbed the Eliminate Non-serialized Untraceable Firearm — or ENUF — ordinance, the measure prohibits buying, selling or possessing the frame of an unfinished gun unless it has a serial number — essentially treating the unfinished part as a completed firearm. A violation would be a misdemeanor.

The measure would not apply to guns that are inoperable, antique or made before 1968.

Von Wilpert said it was the first ordinance of its kind in the state.

The measure was approved 8 to 1, with Councilmember Chris Cate opposed.

Cate said the ban’s potential impact on law-abiding gun owners was somewhat unclear. He said he believes the ordinance would require them to take extra steps by applying for serial numbers for gun parts, and then the final product — the firearm built with the parts.

He also cast doubt on the effects of the ban.

“If criminals are not following current laws, and have the plan to cause harm to others, it’s completely unreasonable to believe they will follow this new law,” Cate said.

Other council members said they believed the council has a duty to try to protect San Diegans from ghost guns.


“We can’t allow criminals to have such easy access to these weapons,” Councilmember Stephen Whitburn said.

Councilmember Raul Campillo said the ordinance was reasonable and necessary. He highlighted the April 22 shooting death of 28-year-old Justice Boldin, a parking valet who was shot with a ghost gun in an apparently unprovoked attack. Police said the suspect is a felon who was barred from having a gun.

Boldin “did not have to die,” Campillo said.

While some community members voiced opposition to the ordinance, most urged the council to support the measure.

Stephan Abrams with Team Enough, the youth-led arm of the national gun control organization Brady: United Against Gun Violence, recounted the time he purchased gun parts online, without background or gun safety checks, when he was 17 years old to show how accessible gun kits were.

“When I say it was as easy as buying anything else online, it really was,” he said.

Before the council meeting, Bishop Cornelius Bowser, who works on gang violence prevention, said he has heard from people who have been asked, “You need a gun? I can make you one right now.”

“So we need to put a stop to that right now,” Bowser said.

Von Wilpert’s staff said the ordinance is expected to return to the City Council on Sept. 14 for a final vote. The ban would take effect 30 days later.

A state law that will take effect in July will require that a licensed vendor process the sale or transfer of unfinished gun frames, with face-to-face background checks as part of the process.

Supporters of the local ordinance said it is important for San Diego and other cities to take immediate action to prevent ghost-gun-related violence.

“We can’t wait a whole year to act,” Von Wilpert said.

Last month, San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit announced that the department had assembled a team of five investigators dedicated to cases involving the manufacture and illegal sale of ghost guns. The investigators also can assist other units with investigations linked to ghost guns.

Hernandez writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.