Tustin, Aug. 17: A woman reports a carjacking by a man wielding a rifle.
Corona, July 26: Two teenagers are fatally shot in a movie theater by a man claiming voices in his head prompted him.
San Diego, April 22: A man is suspected of killing one person, wounding four others in seemingly random shootings downtown.
Compton, 2020: Two Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies are ambushed in a shooting.
Santa Clarita, 2019: A 16-year-old allegedly shoots five classmates, two fatally.
What links these cases, beyond simply adding to the bloated roster of gun crimes and violence in Southern California?
In these cases, all were committed with ghost guns — unregistered, unregulated, home-assembled firearms made from commercially available parts.
These shootings and violent gun crimes are no longer aberrant apparitions, and according to law enforcement leaders, they are part of a rapidly growing ghost gun trend.
Sold in do-it-yourself “kits,” or files for 3D printers, ghost guns skirt federal regulations because they require assembly of unregulated parts, easily obtained without background checks, to become functional firearms.
There is a very real specter in our midst and it is the ghost guns, which threaten to overwhelm the criminal gun marketplace.
According to the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, ghost guns are surging across the country, accounting for 30 percent of the guns they seize.
In Los Angeles, according to Police Chief Michel Moore, ghost guns represent more than four in 10 firearms recovered.
“Ghost guns may be the scariest and fastest growing gun safety threat in the country, allowing anyone to make an untraceable weapon in less than an hour,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, a gun-safety advocacy group.
Across Orange County the wave to unregistered guns continues as well.
Santa Ana Police Chief David Valentin addressed the proliferation of ghost guns and the importance of holding violators accountable with Governor Gavin Newsom in Long Beach at a July meeting about crime with California’s large city mayors and police chiefs.
Apart from being untraceable and unregulated, law officials say the guns generally have one purpose.
“They’re not for sport hunting,” said Valentin, whose city has seen a spike in prevalence of the guns on its streets. “They are in the hands of career criminals, gang members, and gun traffickers.”
Det. Javon Smith, who works with the GRADE unit in Tustin, where the ghost-gun rifle was recovered after the alleged carjacking, agreed that ghost guns serve little purpose other than to be used criminally.
“An everyday citizen that wants a gun, they go through the proper channels, with registration, background checks and training,” Smith said.
The Tustin carjacking is only the most recent dramatic story involving a ghost gun in Orange County. A Tustin police officer found a woman who said she had been carjacked by a man holding a rifle, later recovered and found to be made with unserialized parts. Police later arrested Nathan Mejia, 21, who had been out on bail after being arrested for possession of a loaded firearm.
Gun advocates say criminals make up only a small fraction of the booming home-made gun market and that making firearms is a long-held and practiced Constitutional right and should be free of governmental involvement.
In testimony at a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on ghost guns, Firearms Scholar and history Ashley Hlebinsky testified that “ordering parts and assembling firearms at home has been around for centuries. You can even buy parts kits for modern reproductions of antique firearms.”
She also refuted the notion that serial numbers are the only way to trace guns with modern forensics.
Surge by the numbers
The rise of the ghost gun in recent years has been chilling, particularly in conjunction with the national surge in gun violence and crimes.
- In May 2019, the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) reported that 30 percent of seized firearms in the department’s possession were ghost guns. That’s 10,000 ghost guns recovered throughout the nation in 2019.
- In Los Angeles county alone, the number of ghost guns showing up in county investigations increased by 50 percent over the previous year.
- In February, Los Angeles law enforcement officials arrested a suspect who allegedly was manufacturing ghost guns, including high-capacity rifles, and selling them to gang members.
- San Francisco ghost gun seizures have increased exponentially, to 164 in 2020 from six in 2016, a jump of more than 2,000 percent. The city had already seized 150 by August this year. According to the San Francisco police, half of the firearms recovered in 2020 in connection with homicides were ghost guns.
- Washington, D.C. saw a 342 percent increase in recovered ghost guns – a jump from 26 ghost guns in 2018 to 115 in 2019.
- In Philadelphia, 250 ghost guns were recovered in 2020, up from 99 in 2019.
- Law enforcement can only guess at the number of ghost guns in circulation because of the lack of traceability.
Many ATF and local police officers fear this is just the tip of a trend that will only worsen.
In Santa Ana, Valentin said seizures of ghost guns are up 124 percent this year. The day before talking to Behind the Badge, Valentin said a stop of a car for a vehicle code violation resulted in the seizure of six firearms, including two ghost pistols and a third firearm converted into an assault rifle with ghost parts.
In Tustin, Smith said ghost guns haven’t been specified in seizures in the past, but from his observations they are showing up in alarming numbers.
During an Oct. 7 Crime Impact operation, Tustin police for the first time seized two loaded .22-caliber ghost guns from gang members with criminal records.
“These were gang members from our city who are well-known to us,” Tustin Sgt. David Welde said.
The legal front
Law enforcement and lawmakers are starting to fight back, although many say the genie is already out of the bottle. A handful of states, including California, have introduced and even enacted laws to restrict the flow of ghost guns to little effect. California, which has had a ghost gun law since 2016, is still an epicenter for the products.
In April, the Biden administration, with Republican opposition, began proposing new gun control measures to regulate the sale of ghost gun kits.
“I want to see these kits treated as firearms under the Gun Control Act,” Biden said.
The Department of Justice in May started the process by issuing a notice of a proposed rule that “would update the definitions of ‘firearm,’” according to a press release and “would modernize the definition of ‘frame or receiver’ and help close a regulatory loophole.”
The rule still has to go through the regulatory process, which can be lengthy.
Also in May, Sen. Richard Blumental and Rep. David Cicilline introduced legislation in the Senate and House, respectively, to clamp down on ghost guns by expanding the federal law’s definition of a “firearm.” They introduced a similar bill a year ago and legislative efforts to advance various gun control measures have regularly failed in Congress.
California requires anyone building a homemade firearm to obtain a serial number from the state. And yet it has not abated the growth of ghost guns.
In August, the two Los Angeles County Sheriffs ambushed, allegedly by a man with a ghost gun, sued gun-kit maker Polymer 80, accusing the Nevada manufacturer of negligently and unlawfully selling an “untraceable home-assembled gun kit” that resulted in the attack.
The lawsuit, the latest in a string against the manufacturer, was filed on behalf of the deputies by Everytown Law, a gun safety advocacy group that has sued several other gun kit providers.
In August, the San Francisco District Attorney sued three makers of ghost gun kits sold online, claiming their businesses are flooding California streets with untraceable weapons and violating multiple state and federal laws. In October, the California Attorney General announced the state is joining in the suit.
After the San Diego shooting, the city council there passed an ordinance to crack down on ghost guns. The Eliminate Non-Serialized Untraceable Firearm ordinance makes it illegal to sell unregistered gun kits in San Diego online or in stores. San Diego police have also formed a Ghost Gun Team to deal with the problem. In October, the Ghost Gun Apprehension Team seized 14 ghost handguns, 14 unserialized assault rifles and a 3D printer after serving search warrants in the San Diego area.
San Francisco has also enacted a ban on ghost guns that was passed by the Board of Supervisors in October.
Governmental attempts to restrict ghost guns face challenges from gun advocates, such as in Washington, D.C., where a law meant to restrict ghost guns has been challenged.
Fighting the tide
Across the country, police departments are doing their best to slow the flood of guns, both legal and illegal. In Santa Ana, Valentin has made it a priority.
This year, as part of a targeted plan to take guns off the streets, Santa Ana has removed 291 guns from the streets, including 119 ghost guns (40.8 percent). Last year, by contrast, Santa Ana seized 50 ghost guns out of 226 overall.
As a result, not only have the police more than doubled the haul of ghost guns, but the percentage of ghost guns among all guns taken has nearly doubled.
But police realize stamping down on guns within their borders isn’t enough and broader efforts are required.
Smith says multi-agency efforts with the Department of Justice and ATF are needed.
“We have to figure out who are the people who are putting them together and selling them on the black market,” he said. “We need to think outside of the box.”
“There are a lot of variables,” Valentin said. “We have to stay focused. We have to continue to monitor and aggressively address it.”
Smith says seizing guns, one or several at a time, is not a long-term solution.
“We have to continue and build bigger cases,” he said.
In an opinion piece for The Hill, Mike Feuer, Los Angeles City Attorney and Co-Chair of Prosecutors Against Gun Violence, who has joined in the suit against Polymer 80, talked about the big picture.
“This includes continuing to focus upstream in the supply chain, as we’re doing through our lawsuit,” he wrote. “But as the frequent recoveries of ghost guns from our streets make clear, every month that passes without federal action on all facets of the escalating gun violence plaguing urban America — including on ghost guns — leaves our residents less safe.”