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Ghost guns proliferate as Philadelphia grapples with gun violence

Since 2018, Philly cops have recovered 118 ghost guns from crime scenes. Critics say the guns pose a danger to the public because they are sold in kits and assembled at home, lacking serial numbers, and cannot be traced to manufacturers.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks as Gov. Tom Wolf stands behind him at a December news conference about the growing threat of "ghost guns."
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks as Gov. Tom Wolf stands behind him at a December news conference about the growing threat of "ghost guns."Read morePennsylvania Governor's Office

The weapon of choice for a growing number of criminals has no serial number, can’t be traced to a manufacturer, and doesn’t require a background check for purchase. It is sold at gun shows and over the internet — not as a functioning gun, but in a kit of disassembled parts. Buyers use their own tools, including electric drills and sandpaper, to build a handgun or assault rifle.

It’s called a ghost gun, and such weapons have been seized by Philadelphia police 10 times this year already.

The situation is of growing concern to public officials, including Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who point to mayhem from street crimes to mass shootings committed with the weapons.

“Now we face an emerging threat in communities across Pennsylvania, the threat of ghost guns,” Shapiro said in December when he and Wolf announced a policy that classified the largest component of ghost guns, the unfinished frames, as firearms. The policy also calls for background checks for buyers.

“These are... firearms that lurk beneath the shadows, often ending up in the hands of those who can’t legally buy a firearm on their own,” Shapiro added.

But in January, bowing to a request from a firearm advocacy coalition and three gun manufacturers, a Commonwealth Court judge issued a preliminary injunction putting the policy on hold.

On Feb. 24, the Attorney General’s Office filed an answer to the petition on behalf of State Police Commissioner Robert Evanchick. But the injunction remains in place, Shapiro spokesperson Jacklin Rhoads said Thursday.

The National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation say that building a gun at home has always been legal, and that “ghost gun” is a new slur coined by politicians who would rather attack citizens’ gun rights than lock up criminals already prohibited from possessing guns.

“Gov. Wolf wants to take away the liberties of Pennsylvanians to be able to build their own firearms because he has a crime problem,” said Mark Oliva III, spokesperson for the Washington, D.C.-based foundation. “So just address crime, don’t take away the liberty of those who are exercising their rights.”

The absence of serial numbers on ghost guns should not stop police from using old-fashioned investigative skills to solve crimes, Oliva insisted.

“Are there people who are nefarious and maybe are skirting the law in trying to do this?” he said. “I don’t doubt that there are, and these people need to be prosecuted and put in jail. They’re criminals if they’re transferring a firearm to a criminal, or if they’re making firearms and they’re in the business of selling those firearms without a federal license.”

Ghost guns are “extremely dangerous,” according to David Pucino, staff attorney for the San Francisco-based Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

“The ghost gun phenomenon is a very cynical exploitation of the way our existing gun laws are structured, and are intended to evade those laws,” Pucino said this week. “It’s a mechanism of getting into the customer’s hand everything they need to create a firearm without any of the laws being triggered under the federal standard.”

One remedy, Pucino said, is for the federal government to treat the unfinished frames, also known as “80% receivers,” as guns. He noted that New Jersey, Connecticut, and Washington state have approved laws restricting ghost guns, while California requires those who make their own guns to get a serial number from the state that must be placed on the guns.

Pennsylvania authorities need only look at California to see how rapidly ghost guns can spread. A May 2019 investigation by The Trace in partnership with NBC found that law enforcement agencies across that state are recovering record numbers of ghost guns. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, 30% of all guns now recovered by agents in California are unserialized. And without a serial number, they cannot be traced in criminal investigations.

Proliferating in Philadelphia

While arguments over ghost guns continue, the weapons are proliferating. The Philadelphia Police Department began tracking them in the fall of 2018. Thirteen ghost guns were recovered that year, 95 in 2019, and 10 so far this year, for a total of 118, said Staff Inspector Sekou Kinebrew, the department’s spokesperson.

Still, ghost guns made up a small percentage of guns confiscated by city police last year — 2.23% of 4,264 firearms, Kinebrew said.

Across the country, ghost guns have been lethal.

In March 2019, New Jersey authorities announced the arrests of 12 men they said were part of a criminal network in Camden County that trafficked in untraceable, build-it-yourself AR-15 assault rifles. At a news conference in Camden, state and local officials said some of the men were the first to be arrested under a new state law criminalizing the use of ghost guns.

The yearlong investigation by the Attorney General’s Office and the New Jersey State Police, dubbed “Operation Stone Wall,” began as a probe of cocaine distribution centered in Lindenwold and broadened to include guns, authorities said.

In California last year, a 16-year-old boy killed two students and injured three others with a self-assembled firearm at a school in Santa Clarita. In 2017, a California man prohibited from owning a gun killed six people and injured 10 with two assault-style rifles he assembled using parts ordered online. And in 2014, a man who failed a background check and could not legally buy a gun built an assault rifle from a ghost gun kit, then used it to kill five people at a college campus in Southern California.

In Washington, D.C., where police last year took 116 ghost guns from crime scenes — up sharply from three in 2017 — four killings have been committed with those guns, according to the Washington Post.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser on Wednesday signed emergency legislation banning kits used to make ghost guns after the number of home-built firearms seized by police in the city spiked last year. The D.C. Council had passed the bill in a unanimous vote last week.

In March 2018, a Pennsylvania state trooper fatally shot a convicted felon and shoplifting suspect who pointed a kit-assembled Glock handgun at him during a foot chase in Lehigh County.

Later that month, after Upper Darby police arrested an 18-year-old exchange student from Taiwan for threatening to shoot up Monsignor Bonner High School, they found a 9mm handgun he assembled from parts and bought on the internet, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.

Meanwhile, Kevin Hensil, a spokesperson for Wolf, said Thursday that he could not discuss active litigation, “but the governor believes that untraceable ghost guns are exploiting a loophole in state law that is intended to protect the public by stopping criminals, terrorists, and other people who can’t pass a background check from acquiring a gun.”