Untraceable, homemade firearms commonly known as “ghost guns” are turning up at potential crime scenes by the tens-of-thousands and have become popular weapons of choice among terrorists and violent extremists, according to leaked report from federal law enforcement officials.
The flyer, meant for distribution among various law enforcements agencies around the U.S., comes from the Joint Terrorism Assessment Team (JCAT). It highlights the growing nexus between ghost guns and crime, including attacks and plots orchestrated by terrorists, extremists and hate groups. JCAT is a partnership between the FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center, and Homeland Security.
The six-page document, obtained by The Trace and verified by NBC Bay Area through federal law enforcement sources, details how nearly 24,000 nonserialized firearms were recovered by law enforcement from potential crime scenes from 2016 to 2020.
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“The number of PMF recoveries from 2018 to 2019 doubled among prohibited persons and felons,” the report states.
Missing serial numbers are one of the tell-tale signs of a ghost gun, which are frequently built from kits that can be legally purchased online without a background check because the unassembled parts aren’t regulated like a fully assembled firearm. That makes those guns untraceable unless the gun’s owner applies for a serial number as required by law in California.
“It’s a deliberate effort by the criminal element to work around California gun laws,” said Marisa McKeown, a supervising deputy district attorney in Santa Clara County. “Because of the ease of assembly, it's a very attractive option, especially if you can't walk into a shop because you're a felon. So, if you can order one of these kits to your door and use the included drill bits, you can have this done in a matter of minutes.”
“We found multiple garage builds (in Santa Clara County) that are building everything from the Glock style handguns to A-R15-style builds,” McKeown said. “This is a home industry now because it's incredibly profitable."
The explosive rise in ghost gun recoveries is happening all over the Bay Area, not just San Jose.
Police in San Francisco and Oakland tell NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit they’re seeing record numbers of ghost gun seizures. San Francisco reported 164 recoveries in 2020, up from zero in 2015 and six the following year. Across the bay, Oakland police say they recovered 206 privately made firearms in 2020, nearly four times the number from the previous year.
Ghost guns account for about 23% of all firearm recoveries in Oakland so far this year, according to data from the department.
The Santa Clara County Crime Lab reports examining a 135 privately made firearms last year, a record number for the lab. In 2015, that number was four.
*Data from San Jose police includes all unserialized firearms recovered by the agency
“You don’t need any safety training,” said Santa Clara County Crime Lab Director Ian Fitch as he showed off examples of AR-15 and Glock-style ghost guns recently sent to the lab for analysis. “You can purchase this. It arrives at your house. Nobody knows that you have it.”
The JCAT document warns law enforcement agencies around the country to be more aware and on the look-out for privately made firearms (PMFs). The document highlights the relative ease of obtaining and assembling the parts to complete a ghost gun.
“Illicit actors may seek PMFs to circumvent security, avoid some state government regulations, and evade detection of and complicate law enforcement investigative efforts,” the document states.
“Criminals and violent extremists continue to seek ways to acquire firearms through the production of privately made firearms (PMFs),” the report states. “PMFs can be easily made using readily available instructions and commonly available tools, require no background check or firearms registration (serial number) under federal law, and their parts have become more accessible and affordable.”
A 2019 investigation by The Trace and several local NBC TV stations found that 30 percent of all firearms recovered in California by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were unserialized.
“It’s difficult to get your hands on a legal handgun if you are part of the criminal element,” McKeown said. “But if you can get one of these kit-built guns, you’re in business.”
The untraceable nature of ghost guns also makes them appealing to extremists, according to the JCAT report, referencing ghost gun seizure from hate groups, including three individuals allegedly plotting to attack a protest in 2020.
Ghost guns have been used in mass shootings and attacks by alleged extremists across California, including a 2013 mass shooting in Santa Monica and a 2017 mass shooting in Tehama County that each killed five people.
Steven Carrillo, the Air Force sergeant and alleged Boogaloo adherent accused of murdering a federal security officer guarding the Oakland federal building and a Santa Cruz sheriff’s deputy in 2020, used a homemade AR-15-style rifle to carry out his attacks, according to police.
“Their “go to” is to try to get a hold of a privately made firearm, because of the belief that [law enforcement] will never be able to figure out where this weapon came from,” said Northern California Regional Intelligence Center Director Mike Sena, whose office has been holding regional training for law enforcement specifically to teach local officers how to identify and combat ghost guns.
Sena said the untraceable nature of ghost guns can complicate investigations into terrorists or violent extremists plotting potential attacks.
“The problem is that prior to that event, we have no indicator that that person has weapons,” Sena said. “When we run that person for firearms, nothing will show up.”
Recently, gun rights groups have pushed back against attempts to regulate PMFs.
In response to a package of gun reform proposals from San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, the Sacramento-based Firearms Policy Coalition defended the rights of Americans to assemble their own guns.
“America has a long history and tradition of individuals making and assembling their own arms, and indeed, such practices have always been lawful,” the FPC said in an email. “Law-abiding people have a right to self-manufacture firearms for their own lawful use, and FPC will aggressively protect the rights of San Jose residents to build their own firearms at home.”
NBC Bay Area recently attended several California gun shows to see what vendors and customers had to say about ghost guns.
While many said kits to assemble your own gun were appealing because they offer the ability to build a gun that matches the buyer’s personal preferences, others said they turned to ghost guns for more suspect reasons.
“I built mine because I did have some guns taken away from me,” said one customer, who said police seized his firearms after a domestic violence allegation from his girlfriend, which he denied. “It’s very easy to have your guns taken away in California.”
One vendor seemed to dissuade us from obtaining a serial number for any PMF that we said we planned to build, despite laws in California requiring do-it-yourself gun builders to do just that.
“I wouldn’t take it down there,” he said. “You might not get it back.”
While speaking to that vendor, another customer approached, telling us, “I’ve got mine for when the ‘S’ hits the fan.”
“They’re gonna be someplace where nobody can find them.”