Baltimore police are on track to seize at least twice as many privately manufactured firearms — often called “ghost guns” — as they did in 2020, Sheree Briscoe, the city’s deputy police commissioner, said Tuesday.
At a virtual conversation moderated by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy, Briscoe said the department has seen an increase in its recovery of privately manufactured firearms in the last few years.
The department recovered 29 ghost guns in 2019; 126 in 2020; and 83 from January to mid-May this year.
“We’re on pace to surpass last year’s numbers and potentially come in between 250 to 300 privately made firearms that will make their way to the streets of Baltimore in the hands of various age groups [and] communities,” she said.
According to Briscoe, 15 ghost gun seizures were “directly linked” to homicide or shooting investigations in 2020.
“…To some that may not be a large percentage, but any percentage that’s attributed to a gun that is not legally registered, legally manufactured with serial numbers, is a challenge because then you run the difficulty of trying to find out where did that come from, who may ever possess that gun,” said Briscoe.
Privately manufactured firearms, produced by individuals or unlicensed manufacturers, largely have untraceable parts and can be made by 3D printers, from kits or from individual pieces of unfinished guns ordered online.
Typically, these guns don’t have serial numbers or other identifiable markings.
When sold as parts, some primary components, including the receiver and frame, are not required to bear serial numbers because they are not fully finished firearms and, as such, can be purchased without a background check.
“These guns, because they cannot be easily traced or identified when they’re recovered by law enforcement after a suspected crime, are often called ghost guns,” said Alex McCourt, director of legal research at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy.
There have been efforts to regulate these untraceable weapons.
Sen. Susan Lee (D-Montgomery) and Del. Lesley J. Lopez (D-Montgomery) attempted to put regulations on the sale and manufacture of privately manufactured firearms at the state level during the 2021 legislative session, but their bill was quashed in Senate and House committees.
In early May, the U.S. Department of Justice announced plans to attempt to update legal definitions of firearms, gun frames and receivers. The proposed rule would require that gun kit manufacturers put serial numbers on frames or receivers, that federally licensed arms dealers put serial numbers on 3D printed guns and that businesses which sell gun kits run background checks on their customers.
McCourt said that data collection on ghost guns is “limited.”
Between Jan. 1, 2016, and Dec. 31, 2020, there were 23,906 privately manufactured firearms reported to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The agency attempted to trace 23,946 of them from Jan. 1, 2016, to March 4, 2021, but just 151 ghost guns were successfully traced.
“And most of these were only successful because a serial number was printed somewhere else on the gun,” said McCourt.
In testimony delivered before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution last month, Baltimore City Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said that nearly a quarter of ghost guns seized by the department in 2020 were found in the hands of people too young to legally purchase or possess a firearm. One teenager was only 14.
Briscoe said 29 ghost gun recoveries in 2020 were from minors and young adults too young to own a firearm. There have been 28 recovered so far in 2021 from underage persons.
She said that a good portion of the seizures were from people who have already interacted with the criminal justice system, but Briscoe wonders about the teens and where they became involved in this activity.
“…We are seeing these guns show up in our crime scenes, we are seeing these guns in the hands of our youth and we are seeing these guns in the hands of those that are most at risk,” Briscoe said.