‘They found the ghost’: As feds’ ghost gun rule faces legal challenges, MN sees spike in state charges

The new federal rule to regulate ghost guns was intended to keep untraceable and un-serialized firearms out of the hands of criminals and kids. However, the rule continues to face legal challenges across the country. 

Ghost guns are virtually untraceable with no serial number and historically background checks were not required, which meant that criminals and even teenagers could buy a ready-to-build kit online to make their own ghost gun. 

In the ATF’s first firearms report in 20 years, the federal government said it recovered nearly 38,000 suspected ghost guns between 2017 and 2021. The report said more than 25,000 suspected ghost guns were recovered last year. 

In Minnesota, at least 187 suspected ghost guns were recovered between 2017-2021, the data show. 

"If you look back five years, the number of ghost guns that were recovered in crimes is minimal compared to the tens of thousands that are being recovered today," said Megan Walsh, a law professor at the University of Minnesota. 

Last year, the Biden administration created a new rule to regulate unassembled ghost gun kits and treat them like a firearm at face value. 

"These guns are weapons of choice for many criminals. We're going to do everything we can to deprive them of that choice," President Biden said last year when announcing the rule. 

The new federal rule was met with a flurry of lawsuits across the country. One case in Texas became the biggest roadblock to the regulation when a federal judge threw out the rule nationwide earlier this year. 

"It’s not a Second Amendment case," Walsh said. "It’s not a challenge saying, ‘I have a right to keep and bear arms and this rule violates that right’, this is an administrative law change, which is very different. So it’s basically saying that the Biden administration is overstepping its authority to regulate firearms." 

The Biden administration took it to the Supreme Court, arguing that throwing out the rule would be "reopening the floodgates to the tide of untraceable ghost guns flowing into our nation’s communities." 

In a surprise move, the conservative majority U.S. Supreme Court ordered to keep the ghost gun rule in effect for now, as the case makes its way through the appeals court.

"It’s not a ruling on the merits, so it doesn’t tell us anything about how the Supreme Court would actually decide this case if it comes before it, but it does give us insight into what some of these justices are thinking," Walsh said.  

Ghost guns in Minnesota

In Minnesota, criminals have exploited ghost guns to commit a variety of violent crimes. 

The FOX 9 Investigators previously highlighted a New Year’s Eve shooting at the Mall of America where a teenager was injured and an innocent bystander was grazed by a bullet. The firearm in question was a Polymer 80 ghost gun, which the shooter told police he bought online. 

Police have even found ghost guns in the hands of underage teenagers. 

Dashcam video obtained by the FOX 9 Investigators shows the arrest of a 15-year-old boy in St. Paul who was accused of an armed robbery over a bicycle in 2021. 

The video shows police recovering a loaded ghost gun from the teen before he was ultimately booked – a striking example of where some of those untraceable firearms are ending up. 

Minnesota state law bans possession of un-serialized firearms 

While the fate of the federal rule on ghost guns remains in question, Minnesota has its own state law on the books that makes it illegal to possess a firearm without a serial number. It’s a state charge that’s rarely been used historically, until recently. 

One such case involved a traffic stop in Richfield last year in which two young men were pulled over for an "illegal lane change."

Court records reveal the smell of marijuana led police to search the car where they found a backpack with a loaded gun inside – a firearm with no serial number. 

Dashcam video obtained by the FOX 9 Investigators shows then 21-year-old Alfonzo Williams mention the ghost gun while in the back of the police squad car. 

"They found the ghost… I’m going to say I found the bag," said Williams, adding later: "My fingerprints all on that [expletive], it’s been shot before."

Williams ultimately pleaded guilty to a felony state charge for possession of a firearm without a serial number. 

Williams’ case is just one example of a growing number of similar cases in Minnesota. Last year, at least 122 charges were filed statewide – that’s a 400% increase from the year before, according to court data.