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Senators call on YouTube to crack down on ‘ghost gun’ videos 

The letter from five Democrats comes after an NBC News investigation found dozens of YouTube videos with step-by-step instructions for making homemade guns.
Image: Ghost guns
Ghost guns secured by the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department were displayed at a news conference in February 2020. Astrid Riecken / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

Five Democratic senators, led by Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, are calling for YouTube to more strictly enforce its prohibition on videos showing how to make untraceable “ghost guns.”

The senators’ letter, sent to YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki on Monday, follows an NBC News investigation in December that found dozens of YouTube videos that violated the site’s guidelines by showing how to assemble “ghost guns,” which remain largely unregulated in most states and are nearly impossible to trace because they lack serial numbers. These weapons are a growing concern for law enforcement amid a rise in gun crime because they can be built at home from a kit anyone can buy online without a background check. 

Although YouTube quickly removed specific videos cited by NBC News — as well as some videos the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety separately flagged in a December letter to YouTube — others with similar content remain on the site. 

In the letter to Wojcicki this week, the senators wrote that congressional staff members had spoken with YouTube officials, who pledged to review the videos on the platform for possible violations of the company’s guidelines, which have prohibited showing how to build guns since 2018. Following that review, however, a researcher still found “dozens” more videos on how to build ghost guns, according to the letter.

YouTube’s policies on gun-related videos “must be enforced — and enforced strongly — to make any difference,” the senators wrote. 

“It cannot be the case that YouTube is entirely reactive,” the letter continued, “removing these kinds of videos only when news outlets call public attention to violative content, when gun violence prevention advocates send letters listing specific YouTube videos that violate its Community Guidelines, or when congressional staff reach out to raise concerns about such videos.”

In an email to NBC News on Tuesday, YouTube spokesperson Ivy Choi said the company removed more than 280,000 videos that violated its rules against content it deemed harmful or dangerous in the third quarter of 2021, including videos that violated its firearms policy.

“This work is ongoing,” Choi said, “and our teams will continue to work hard to refine the policies and systems that allow us to quickly detect and remove violative videos.”

YouTube has not yet responded to the letter, which was also signed by Sens. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.; Christopher Murphy, D-Conn.; Cory Booker, D-N.J.; and Edward Markey, D-Mass. 

The letter came on the fourth anniversary of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead. YouTube announced its ban on videos that show how to make firearms, including ghost guns, in March 2018 — days before the “March for Our Lives,” a gun control rally in Washington organized by survivors of the Parkland shooting.

Over the past five years, ghost guns have exploded in popularity. In 2016, local law enforcement reported recovering 1,750 ghost guns from potential crime scenes, according to data from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. By 2018, that figure had risen to 3,776. In 2020, the last year for which ATF reported data, it was 8,712.

Spikes in seizures have occurred in cities from New York to Philadelphia to Los Angeles. Ghost guns have also been tied to several high-profile incidents, including a deadly school shooting and an ambush on police officers.

The Biden administration is finalizing a rule that would regulate the major parts used to build ghost guns in the same way that fully assembled firearms are regulated. The rule would require manufacturers to add serial numbers to these gun parts, so law enforcement can trace them to a buyer if they’re used in a crime. It would also require dealers to perform a background check on people who buy the parts. The proposed rule is undergoing revisions based on public comments and is expected to be finalized later this year.