Untraceable ‘Ghost Guns’ Are Surging Across the US, Exclusive Data Shows
Mia Tretta’s morning on November 14, 2019 started off just like any other. She was a freshman at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, a suburb north of Los Angeles, and had just been dropped off by her grandmother. Ten minutes later, she was chatting with her friends outside when she heard a loud bang. Then another. Then it was chaos.
The next thing Tretta remembers she was on the ground, fighting for her life. A student had brought a pistol to school and opened fire, seemingly targeting victims at random. It was the gunman’s 16th birthday. He was armed, as Tretta would later learn, with a .45 caliber “ghost gun,” a type of unregistered firearm assembled from parts without serial numbers that has become increasingly common across the United States.
Tretta was shot in the lower abdomen but managed to pick herself up and climb two flights of stairs to her Spanish teacher’s classroom, where she took shelter until the police arrived. Her close friend, 14-year-old Dominic Blackwell, was killed, along with another 15-year-old classmate. Three others were wounded and the perpetrator took his own life.
It was a couple days later, while Tretta was still hospitalized, when the detectives told her about the ghost gun used to shoot her. She had never heard the term before, and was stunned to learn that unfinished gun parts aren’t technically considered firearms, so they don’t require serial numbers. Buyers aren’t required to undergo the same federal background check required for factory-made guns sold by licensed dealers.
“A ghost gun was a loophole in our system that no one really talked about,” said Tretta. “They’re build-it-yourself guns. And for me, that sounded ridiculous. If someone couldn’t get a normal gun, why should they be able to build it themselves at home?”
According to new data gathered exclusively by VICE News, by 2019 when Tretta was shot, parts of the United States were being inundated with ghost guns. We contacted over 50 local law enforcement agencies nationwide about recoveries of unserialized firearms over the past five years, the first independent effort to track the rise of these weapons across the country.
Seventeen police departments provided data on more than 8,500 ghost guns recovered since 2016, with the vast majority found in the last three years. These figures likely represent just a small fraction of the total ghost guns seized by law enforcement; more than a dozen agencies told us they simply did not keep track of unserialized guns or had no records available, while others have either ignored inquiries or not yet fulfilled public records requests.
In early April, the Department of Justice released its own national statistics on ghost guns, reporting over 45,000 “privately made firearms” or PMFs as they are known among law enforcement, recovered since 2016, including in 692 guns linked to murder or attempted homicide investigations. The data shows ghost gun recoveries spiking by more than 90 percent last year and 1,000 percent over the last five years.
At the same time, gun violence is on the rise in several major U.S. cities. The national firearm murder rate is the highest it has been since 1994, according to the CDC, with the most recent data showing the largest one-year increase in gun homicides in modern history. Overall crime rates remain relatively low compared to past eras, but the uptick is causing alarm and ghost guns are one of many factors blamed for the rise in violent deaths. Ghost guns are often called “untraceable” because the absence of serial numbers impedes police investigations.
A number of recent high-profile cases have involved assailants wielding ghost guns. In early March, a California man gunned down his three young daughters before turning his ghost gun on himself. The bullets that killed a 16-year-old girl in the Bronx last month and wounded two other teens were fired from a ghost gun. Ghost guns remain just one type of firearm readily available in the U.S.; the gunman who killed 19 children and two teachers last week in Uvalde, Texas, was wielding factory-made AR-15-style rifles he purchased legally in the days after his 18th birthday.
Only 11 states and Washington, D.C. have laws regulating or requiring registration of ghost guns. California is home to some of the most aggressive legislative responses, with the governor backing bills that would encourage lawsuits against ghost gun dealers. One proposal that would enable “almost anyone” to sue parts ghost parts makers or retailers is modeled on a controversial Texas abortion law that California’s Democratic leadership opposes.
California Attorney General Rob Bonta told VICE News that the idea is to turn the Texas abortion law “on its head” and use it to hold bad actors in the firearms industry accountable through civil litigation.
“So as long as the Supreme Court is going to allow for this approach, then we’re going to use it as a force for good and use it in a way that’s consistent with the constitution and make our community safer in the process,” Bonta said.
Federal regulations on ghost guns remain limited. As Tretta, who is now 17 and attending the same high school where she was shot, learned in the hospital, the law allows basically anyone to build a homemade gun.
In the years since the shooting, Tretta has become an outspoken activist calling for tighter laws around unserialized firearms. In early April, her advocacy yielded some results. President Joe Biden invited Tretta to join him at the White House as he announced new federal rules aimed at halting the proliferation of ghost guns.
“A felon, a terrorist, a domestic abuser can go from a gun kit to a gun in as little as 30 minutes,” Biden said. “Buyers aren’t required to pass background checks because these guns have no serial numbers. When they show up at a crime scene, they can’t be traced.”
Tretta had spoken with Biden in the Oval Office earlier in the day and delivered her own speech before the president, who praised her “incredible inspiration and courage” before unveiling the administration’s plan for a self-described “crack down” on ghost guns. While federal law has not changed, the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) has attempted to clarify the threshold for when unfinished gun parts technically become a firearm under the law.
The new rules target a specific type of product dubbed by one retailer the “Buy Build Shoot” kit, where all of the essential gun parts and tools come together in a single box. These so-called “kit guns” were popularized by a Nevada-based company called Polymer80, which was raided by the ATF in December 2020 on suspicion of violating federal firearms laws. No charges were filed, and the company continues to sell many ghost gun parts despite ongoing litigation filed by cities and victims of ghost gun shootings. Polymer80’s CEO declined an interview request.
“Polymer80, Inc. has always operated— and will continue to operate— lawfully, in compliance with local, state and federal laws,” the company said in a previously issued statement. The company also criticized “attempts to co-opt the term ‘ghost gun’ for political purposes.”
On May 9, the ATF sent a letter to another major online retailer of ghost gun parts, Pennsylvania-based JSD Supply, ordering the company to immediately stop “transferring all the components necessary to produce a fully functioning firearm to a single customer in one or multiple transactions.”
The letter suggested JSD’s customers were violating the Biden administration’s new kit gun rules by “structuring” purchases and buying barrels, triggers, receivers, and other essential items separately and sending everything to the same address. In response, the site paused sales.
On May 19, JSD Supply filed a lawsuit against the ATF and the agency’s acting director, alleging the parts it sells online “are entirely unregulated by federal law and completely outside ATF’s authority to control.” The ATF reportedly responded days later by rescinding its cease and desist order.
JSD’s owner did not respond to an interview request, but previously issued a statement saying “the term ‘ghost gun’ is akin to ‘assault rifle’ in the sense that it doesn’t really mean anything but that it’s used to scare the public into believing one gun, by its nature, is more dangerous than another.” He also said “serial numbers don’t make guns or people safer.”
Asked whether other online parts retailers had received similar letters, a spokesperson for the ATF said the agency could not “confirm nor deny correspondence and communications with members of the [firearms] industry.” Images of another cease and desist letter purportedly sent by the ATF to another gun parts retailer circulated on social media last week.
Multiple sources who spoke with VICE News expressed skepticism that the new federal ghost gun regulations will have much impact, because anyone who wants one can still shop around and buy the parts from multiple retailers, or use a 3D-printer to manufacture their own.
In South Central Los Angeles, a man who asked to be identified by the pseudonym Byrd said he’s been illegally selling ghost guns on the streets for the last five years to gang members, buying the parts online for $350-400 and reselling the completed gun for as much as $1,600, a business model he described as “making a killing.”
“When I found out about it I was like, ‘Nah, this can’t be real,’” he said. “You go to this website, boom, boom, boom, and you get your shit in the mail, you get what you need to commit a crime and be fucking gone and then order another one.”
Byrd started out building kit guns but has amassed a collection of tools and parts, and seemed unconcerned about the new federal regulations intended to put him out of business.
“I don’t think there’s ever going to be an issue,” he said as he used a Dremel grinder tool to put the finishing touches on a Glock-style ghost gun pistol frame. “There’s nothing they can do to stop this. It’s way too late.”
For Tretta and other activists, any attempt to federally regulate ghost guns—however limited—is a welcome development. More substantial reforms would require an act of Congress, a nonstarter in the current political climate.
“If every person in Congress knew what it was like to be shot, they would be fighting a lot harder,” Tretta said. “For me, this is a big step. Even if some people on the other side say it’s not going to change anything, it makes it less easy, it’s the convenience that’s the problem.”
But even if the federal government were to launch an all-out offensive, new technology may have already made it impossible to contain ghost guns.
Over the last decade, 3D-printed firearms have rapidly evolved from a flimsy, unreliable single-shot pistols to become sophisticated modern weapons, including “Plastikov” AK-47-style rifles, full-auto machine guns, and even a rocket launcher made using 3D-printed metal and other components.
Past efforts to block the sharing of 3D-printed gun files online have been overturned following legal challenges, and the blueprints can easily be found with a few keyword searches on Google. Homemade firearms with 3D-printed parts have turned up everywhere from western Europe, where gun laws tend to be strict, to Myanmar, where rebel fighters are reportedly arming themselves against the country’s ruling military junta.
A few hours west of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a 3D-printed gun designer named Ethan Middleton showed off several of his creations, including a 9mm Mac 11-style carbine he calls the “Mac and Cheese.” The receiver is Smurf blue and shoots just as smoothly as a factory-made weapon, though the plastic began to crack after an afternoon of shooting. Middleton said he has no qualms about sharing gun files online for anyone to download.
“I try to keep everything as legal and open in public as possible because I love the sharing of information,” Middleton said. As for the absence of serial numbers, he added, “It should be untraceable. I don’t think a lot of people want registration and the government to know about everything that you own and to be able to keep tabs on every single person in the U.S.”
As for the possibility that someone might use one of the guns he designed to commit a mass shooting or other heinous crime, Middleton said he would feel “pretty devastated,” but it wouldn’t stop him from continuing to design and share 3D-printed gun files.
“History shows that bad people are going to do bad things,” he said. “Information can be dangerous and scary…but any bit of information needs to be out there for everyone.”
The police departments surveyed by VICE News did not specify what types of ghost guns are being recovered in their cities. Reports of 3D-printed guns being used in crimes remain rare, but the documented cases are troubling. In May 2020, members of the anti-government extremist group the Boogaloo Bois used a ghost gun equipped with a 3D-printed machine gun conversion device to attack a federal courthouse in Oakland and later ambush police officers, killing two people and wounding three others. A federal counterterrorism report leaked last year warned of individuals with “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremist ideologies” using ghost guns.
Last week in California, police arrested several members of “a violent street gang” in Riverside County, near Los Angeles, and seized a “non-serialized pistol” that state officials said was to be used in a murder conspiracy plot. Police raided the home of the man suspected of manufacturing and providing ghost guns to the gang and found a 3D-printer, according to a spokesperson for the California Attorney General’s office.
At the city level, our data shows ghost guns are more common in major metropolitan areas that already have tight gun laws: The Chicago Police Department recovered more than 2,000 unserialized guns since 2016, logging a nearly 200 percent increase in seizures from 2020 to 2021. San Diego went from 78 ghost guns recovered in 2019 to 545 last year.
The New York Police Department has launched the country’s first dedicated “ghost gun squad,” a unit within the intelligence division dedicated to investigating unserialized firearms. Deputy Inspector Courtney Nilan, who leads the group, said recoveries were already up 300 percent in the first months of 2022.
While 3D-printed weapons are occasionally turning up in the city, Nilan said it’s still far more common for the NYPD to find ghost guns made with factory parts. The NYPD has identified at least 115 online retailers that will ship ghost gun parts to New York City, Nilan said, and some have been unwilling to cooperate with investigations into guns recovered from crime scenes.
“These online retailers are not conducting background checks,” she said. “They have no idea who’s typing in that credit card number behind the computer. They do not know if you’re a convicted felon. They do not know if you have any history of any mental illnesses.”
Ghost gun parts sales can also be perfectly legal.
Dimitri Karras, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who helps run a chain of stores in California and Arizona called Firearms Unknown that sells parts for do-it-yourself builders, said his customers come from all walks of life and most simply want to customize their gun.
“We appeal to people who are interested in building or upgrading or changing or modifying their weapons,” Karras said. “It’s like the computer store. You can buy a Dell or you can go to somebody who’s going to give you every single part you want that’s going to be top of the line.”
Karras dismissed statistics showing significant increases in ghost guns recovered by police, arguing cops have simply started counting guns that have been around for years and were previously untracked. He calls ghost guns, “a made-up term intended to instill fear and terror into the general public.”
Karras has also clashed with the ATF over when unfinished AR-15 lower receivers and other gun frames can be legally considered firearms. A previous company that Karras founded was raided by federal agents in 2014, but after court battles the feds ultimately returned an inventory of 6,000 unfinished lower receivers. He believes it’s far too late for the government to have any hope of outlawing ghost guns.
“Where are you going to draw the line?” Karras asked. “Are you going to monitor every single 3D printer in the whole country? There’s simply no way to police this. It’s impossible. You cannot stop people from doing it.”
It’s still unclear exactly how the ATF will enforce new rules announced by Biden in April, but it appears unfinished parts—specifically frames and receivers—will only be deemed guns that require serial numbers if they have certain markings for finishing or come with parts or tools to complete the assembly process.
The firearms industry is already several steps ahead; one company makes a $2,500 machine called the “Ghost Gunner” that converts an unfinished hunk of raw aluminum into an AR-15 lower receiver with the press of a button.
For Tretta, the idea of ghost guns remaining unregulated and easily available is tough to swallow. The gunman in her school shooting was a teenager who should not have been able to legally purchase again, yet he was able to get all of the parts and build one himself. She paused from studying for an AP exam to consider how her life has changed since the attack. Her trip to the White House and meeting with Biden were unforgettable, she said, but her work is not done.
She still lives in fear of another attack.
“There’s no real handbook on what to do after a school shooting,” she told me. “It’s not just that your best friend was killed, or it’s not just that you were shot, it’s that you can’t even be safe at school anymore.”
Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter.
Miguel Fernández-Flores contributed reporting to this article.