Editor's note: Our sister sites, the Palo Alto Weekly and Redwood City Pulse, joined for this special report on the significant rise in 'ghost guns' over the last few years. They're untraceable, illegal and too often in the hands of criminals.
A joint operation led by the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office ended last week with the seizure of 30 illegally held firearms and the arrest of four men, believed to have trafficked the weapons from Arizona and sold them throughout the county.
The massive, monthslong investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), the San Francisco Police Department and the San Francisco Drug Enforcement Administration Metro Task Force is the latest crackdown on the growing market for illegal firearms.
In addition to automatic rifles, high-capacity magazines and thousands of rounds of ammunition, law enforcement recovered a number of privately made firearms, or "ghost guns," as well as a 3D printer, believed to be used for manufacturing homemade weapons.
The recovered "ghost guns," which are weapons without a serial number that have been hand built — often from kits — were just a fraction of the many such firearms seized in recent months.
Just last week, a suspected carjacker was killed by police officers in San Jose after opening fire on them with a ghost gun. Also last week, a man accused of the "smash and grab" burglary of a Santa Clara high-end sneaker store was arrested and found to be in possession of 30 boxes of luxury sneakers and clothing — and a ghost gun, complete with a loaded 30-round magazine.
Ghost guns are a growing problem for law enforcement throughout California, which banned new unserialized firearms in 2018. While new homemade guns themselves are not illegal, the state has required them to be labeled with a serial number, obtained from the California Department of Justice, which is to be engraved within 10 days of manufacturing the weapon. California is one of 10 states in the nation to regulate ghost guns.
Officials in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties have reported a significant rise in these weapons over the last few years.
Experts say a number of different factors are to blame for the recent uptick in ghost guns which, by nature of being unregistered, are difficult to track and regulate. Law enforcement and legislators alike are scrambling to combat the increase.
"It's astronomical," said Mike Sena, executive director for the Northern California High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area and the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center. "Certain cities are only seeing a fraction of it, but when you look at the greater scale, especially in the western U.S., it's just blown up."
According to San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe, recent estimates suggest that approximately 30-40% of the firearms seized in the county are ghost guns. The Redwood City, South San Francisco and Daly City police departments all report rising numbers, with ghost guns comprising nearly 23% of the 44 firearms recovered in Daly City in 2021.
"There's definitely been a noticeable increase in crimes associated to ghost guns, such as robberies, shootings," said San Mateo County Sgt. Michael Leishman, who led the interstate trafficking investigation. "From a seizure standpoint, I've definitely seen a significant increase in the seizure of PMFs (privately made firearms)."
In Santa Clara County, most of the ghost-gun activity has been in the city of San Jose with a few cases in other cities throughout the county, said Marisa McKeown, supervising deputy district attorney for the Crime Strategies Unit, Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office.
"There's definitely been a trend going on in the last four to five years," she said. "It's a fairly unique phenomenon to California. We're outpacing the rest of the country."
Ghost guns are typically assembled from a kit or separately purchased parts. Because these kits don't contain an "operative" weapon, as defined by the federal ATF, they don't require a background check or serial number to purchase. That makes them attractive to felons and others who are prohibited from possessing firearms, such as people convicted of domestic violence.
Anyone can purchase a gun kit easily over the internet, McKeown said. Kit boxes contain everything a person needs to assemble the gun, including the drill bits. All a buyer needs is a basic drill.
"A kit is not considered a firearm until the frame or the receiver has been built," she said.
From a law enforcement perspective, Leishman said this new trend is concerning. While serialized guns "tell a story" of where they came from, trying to trace a ghost gun back to its source, or to related crimes, is a significant challenge.
"There's no method of tracking records as far as the purchaser, the seller, the buyer," he said. "It really hinders our ability to conduct a thorough investigation; it hinders our ability to track the life of that firearm."
A new and growing problem
Ghost guns recently caught the attention of John Donohue, an economist and professor at Stanford Law School.
"In 2017, there was a very bad shooting at Sutherland Springs, Texas at a Baptist church where 26 people were gunned down," he said. Donohue, who became an expert witness, looked into the case extensively.
"One thing that struck me was in Texas, where it's so easy to get guns by anyone, you don't really have a ghost gun problem because you can pretty much walk into a store and get guns pretty easily. But in California, where it is harder to get guns lawfully, then you see the ghost gun market springing up."
According to Donohue, the problem dates back to legislation like the federal Gun Control Act of 1968, which restricted the selling of weapons to felons, drug users and people deemed mentally ill. In order to "skirt the regulations," he said, gun retailers realized that they could sell non-operative gun parts in a sort of kit that people would be able to construct on their own.
"Now, because mechanisms for putting together the guns have gotten so good and effective, it's not that big a task these days to just buy a kit and put the gun together yourself," he said. As a result, he said, criminals and other people legally banned from owning firearms have been able to acquire them with increasing ease.
Donohue said there is a growing number of ghost gun sellers in the U.S. who are supplying unserialized parts to buyers.
Unlike legal firearms, Wagstaffe said, many of these are purchased online — on the dark web — or on the street. In addition to being unregulated, they're also much cheaper than a normal gun.
The actual assembly is happening almost entirely in residences — a literal cottage industry, according to McKeown.
Police last March arrested a man who had decided to become a mini-manufacturer: He was building them at home and at his workplace, she said. He was one of two arrested after a monthslong investigation by the Santa Clara County DA's office and San Jose police, who found the men had allegedly built ghost guns in warehouses and sold them to south bay felons. Investigators also seized a rifle that had been converted to be fully automatic.
Ghost guns can be nearly indistinguishable, in look and function, from a traditional firearm, according to Wagstaffe.
"It looks no different than if you walked into Big Five and looked at their firearm rack," he said.
While most people are using gun kits, some have started to make them using 3D printers. Santa Clara County law enforcement has recovered a couple of these 3D-printed guns, which were used in a gang-retaliation shooting, McKeown said.
Anecdotally, Leishman said, most smaller handguns that he's seen in San Mateo County are built from kits, while some of the AR-style rifles have been 3D printed.
Police in October arrested a 19-year-old Richmond man suspected of stealing catalytic converters and found he had a 3D-printed, AR-15 style rifle in his possession with a high-capacity magazine, according to various news reports.
By law, it's not illegal to 3D print some gun components out of polymers, but it is illegal to 3D print an entire gun, McKeown said. Under the 1988 federal Undetectable Firearms Act it is illegal to manufacture, possess or transfer a firearm that cannot be detected when going through a metal detector.
These days, 3D-printed guns can be built from shared online plans. A quick online search shows such firearms ranging from pistols to rifles.
Defense Distributed is one organization that distributes downloadable firearm designs, "in service of the general public," according to the website. The single-shot "Liberator," the first 3D-printed gun developed in 2013, has 15 printed parts with only the 16th part being metal — a six-ounce cube of steel added into the body to comply with the Undetectable Firearms Act.
Although 3D-printed guns are rare in Santa Clara County, their manufacture is likely to grow, McKeown said.
"As we regulate these industries (gun kits), we anticipate they will move to new, creative methods," she said.
In fact, some ghost gun users have already figured out how to make even more lethal firearms, something that's "extremely popular right now," Sena said.
"People … are using the same technology to make switches to turn the weapons fully automatic — to turn a handgun into a handheld submachine gun," he said.
What the numbers reveal
Exactly how many ghost guns are circulating in the Bay Area is unknown, but an informal survey of Peninsula law enforcement agencies reveals a noticeable rise: In South San Francisco, more than a fourth of the firearms police recovered in 2021 were ghost guns. And even in relatively quiet Palo Alto, police confiscated two ghost guns during vehicle stops for traffic violations last year.
The Redwood City Police Department reported that two ghost guns were recovered in 2019 and in 2020, of 75 and 57 total guns, respectively. By comparison, seven ghost guns out of 56 guns total were recovered by December 2021.
In South San Francisco, nine ghost guns were recovered in 2019; in 2021, the department seized 12 homemade firearms — over a fourth of the 46 firearms recovered, according to Sgt. Sean Curmi.
Curmi said the majority of ghost guns seized in South San Francisco have been handguns, while an estimated four to five have been AR-15 type rifles. The firearms were recovered during a variety of incidents, including traffic stops, shootings, robberies, and auto burglaries.
Only one ghost gun was recovered in 2019 in Daly City, but 10 each were seized in 2020 and 2021, according to Daly City Police Department Sgt. Brandon Scholes — most seized in conjunction with drug possession or drug sales.
The city of San Mateo reported 16 ghost guns recovered in 2021, an increase of 166% since 2019. The East Palo Alto Police Department reported six ghost guns recovered in 2021. One ghost gun was recovered in Menlo Park in 2021.
In Santa Clara County, the Mountain View Police Department recovered four ghost guns and 20 traditional firearms in 2021, spokeswoman Katie Nelson said.
One of the ghost guns was found during a disturbance call; two were found during separate traffic stops; and one was recently found during the execution of a search warrant. The department doesn't disclose the types of ghost firearms, she said.
Homemade guns have even begun appearing in cities such as Palo Alto. Palo Alto police confiscated two ghost guns in 2021, one each in May and June, Lt. Brian Philip said. Police captured one ghost gun in 2020 but none in 2019.
Each of the three ghost guns was discovered by patrol officers during vehicle stops for traffic violations.
"It is unknown what sort of crimes or incidents in which those firearms may have been involved prior to us seizing them. The guns were submitted to the crime lab for tracing; as of now, they have not yet been connected to any known crimes," Philip said.
Given the low number, Palo Alto police wouldn't characterize the ghost guns as a "trend" in Palo Alto, Philip said.
"With that said, other jurisdictions in the Bay Area have seen substantially more cases, including cases where the guns were seized or used during or after the commission of major crimes," he added.
Ghost gun confiscation is rapidly rising countywide, McKeown said. In 2015, there were just four confiscated ghost firearms in Santa Clara County. In 2018, the total rose to 63; by 2020, that figure was 135, a 114% increase. Although the figures for 2021 aren't complete, McKeown said the number would be higher.
"I would bet my paycheck it's probably at about 200," a roughly 48% increase over 2020, she said.
Although the overall rise in privately made firearms has been noticeable, some jurisdictions have contradictory data that their officials are struggling to explain.
The San Mateo County Sheriff's Office has seen a sharp decline in confiscation of homemade firearms: There were 33 ghost guns/parts seized in 2019, five in 2020 and six in 2021, according to a list the office compiled.
The reason for this significant drop-off isn't clear, although Wagstaffe speculated that it may have something to do with the pandemic.
"Law enforcement was very cautious in their contact with the public during the last two years and perhaps contacts or detentions of citizens, where guns are sometimes found, that might have occurred in other years were not occurring during the pandemic," he said in an email.
Undersheriff Mark Robbins shared similar thoughts. "Especially in 2020, with lockdowns, there were far less people out. While I can't say for certain, this certainly is something to consider," he wrote in an email.
According to David Silberman, San Mateo County's chief deputy counsel, all items on the Sheriff's Office list are guns or parts that are defined as being a firearm (i.e. frames/receivers). The list is limited to those recovered from contract jurisdictions, such as Half Moon Bay, Millbrae, San Carlos, Portola Valley and Woodside, as well as unincorporated areas.
But even small numbers can be a cause for worry, given what they represent, said Redwood City's Captain Ashley Osborne.
"You look at the numbers, and it's not an overwhelming concern, although the increase is significant," said Osborne, noting that the numbers in Redwood City tripled in 2021, from two to seven. "If we saw that triple again, that would certainly start to get into a territory where we're much more concerned about it."
Efforts to combat the proliferation
Law enforcement agencies throughout the Bay Area are trying to figure out how to track down and stop the proliferation of these elusive weapons.
Leishman operates a task force that collaborates with all local police departments, as well as the ATF, the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program and Northern California Regional Intelligence Center.
He said that social media has helped facilitate the ghost gun industry by creating a sort of online marketplace for people to network and share ideas, adding that these platforms also provide a new source of investigative material.
"A lot of these individuals will use open source media or social media to communicate … and oftentimes we can use that as investigative leads," he said. "We'll see certain patterns or images that catch our attention, and we'll start digging further."
At a local level, South San Francisco's Curmi said there's little that can be done to directly combat the ghost gun industry, other than locating the illegal firearms and assisting with investigations led by other local and state agencies.
Redwood City's Osborne agreed, saying that, while the department works diligently to enforce existing gun laws, "a municipal police department doesn't play a big role in the regulation of firearm sales."
In an effort to unite local and statewide efforts against crime guns, including privately made firearms, Sena helped establish the Western Region Crime Gun Intelligence Working Group (CGIWG), a collection of law enforcement staff, prosecutors, crime analysts and forensic lab professionals from California, Nevada and Arizona.
"There was a huge disconnect between prosecutors, the forensics labs, officers on the street, the investigators and the analysts who were looking at various aspects of the manufacture and distribution and use of these types of weapons and criminal activity," he said.
Sena started hearing reports about unserialized weapons and 3D printers in early 2020, and at first, he said, "it didn't make a whole lot of sense." Over the course of the next few months, as it became clear that something significant was happening, he began gathering a group of experts and analysts to look into the new spate of illegal gun-related incidents.
One of Sena's main goals is to work on educating law enforcement about firearm laws and reporting unserialized guns to get a better sense of the scope of the problem — and the networks of illegal trafficking. The group is also working to develop sources and increase communication among agencies, which is important for identifying when different jurisdictions are investigating the same suspects.
Silberman said in an email that the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office is actively collaborating with the Western Region Crime Gun Intelligence Working Group: San Mateo County Sheriff Carlos Bolanos "is dedicated to supporting the Western CGIWG's effort to combat illicit ghost guns with the combined resources of his crime lab, crime analysts and detectives."
The Santa Clara County District Attorney's Crime Strategies Unit has established the Gun-Related Intelligence Program (GRIP), a crime-reduction initiative that is specific to illegal firearms, including ghost guns.
With three intelligence analysts, investigators and prosecutors, GRIP each week identifies shooters and traffickers and plans out strategies to apprehend and prosecute criminals involved in gun-related crimes. They look at trends and patterns and get restraining orders.
The GRIP team works with law-enforcement agencies to plan and execute searches and find the guns and perpetrators and get them off the streets — preferably before they commit any violent crimes, McKeown said.
This year, more than 1,000 law-enforcement officers received training on gun laws. And detectives from multiple cities in Santa Clara County meet regularly with members of the GRIP unit to share information, Palo Alto's Philip said.
Could new legislation stem the tide of ghost guns?
Leaders at all levels of government are actively working to close loopholes on ghost guns.
In September, San Francisco — which has seen a 2,600% increase in confiscated homemade firearms since 2016 — the city's supervisors voted unanimously to ban the sale and possession of ghost gun kits and parts and prohibit construction of unserialized firearms. Violation of the ordinance, which was officially signed into law in early December, is punishable by a $1,000 fine and further legal action from the police and the city attorney.
In the east bay, Oakland recently joined other cities like Los Angeles in proposing new legislation to ban ghost guns outright.
Federally, the Biden administration is pursuing several possible regulations, such as amending federal legislation so that laws about firearms are extended to include gun kits and parts.
In May 2021, the ATF published Proposed Rule 2021R-05 in the Federal Register, which, if adopted, would amend the definition of a "firearm." The rule would require serial-number registrations on the gun frame, or "receiver," and would define which licensed firearms dealers can be registered to add the serial number. The rule would also require certain manufacturer's identifying information.
"If it passes, it would be a major departure. Ghost-gun kits could potentially be illegal," McKeown said.
In a controversial move, Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed last December a law that would allow "private citizens to sue who manufactures, distributes, or sells an assault weapon or ghost gun kit or parts."
In response, the California Rifle and Pistol Association said in a statement: "The latest attack on law-abiding California gun owners is Newsom's response to a recent Supreme Court ruling reacting to a Texas law prohibiting abortion. Law-abiding gun owners and businesses are not the cause of criminal misuse of firearms. Yet, Newsom and other anti-gun politicians seem to believe the threat of frivolous lawsuits will somehow address their own failures."
Similar to Newsom's idea, in January, state Assembly member Mike Gipson (D-Carson), chairman of the Select Committee on Police Reform, introduced Assembly Bill (AB) 1594. The bill would allow civil lawsuits against a gunmaker or industry member for creating or maintaining a public nuisance — conditions that are dangerous to public health and welfare — if their failure to follow federal, state, or local law caused injury or death.
There are also California state laws that have been approved and are waiting to go into effect. On July 1, 2022, anyone selling ghost-gun parts must follow similar rules to those for selling ammunition, including requiring background checks of buyers.
Also on July 1, the state's expanded "red flag" law will make it possible for concerned employers, coworkers, family members and schools to request a court to seize ghost guns from a person who might pose a danger to themselves or others.
Another law, state Assembly Bill AB 879, which goes into effect in July 2024, requires the sale of firearm precursor parts — necessary components such as a receiver or frame — to be conducted by or processed through a licensed firearm precursor part vendor. The bill requires an application process for firearm precursor part vendors. A currently licensed firearm dealer or licensed ammunition vendor would automatically qualify.
In July 2025, the Department of Justice will be required to electronically approve and retain the records of the purchase or transfer of firearm precursor parts through a vendor.
Sena said violations of these AB 879 will be misdemeanors.
"Unfortunately that does not always translate to deterring criminals."
The dangerous bottom line
In some ways, ghost guns are a novel development amplifying an existing problem of illegally owned weapons.
"It's just another avenue for bad things to happen," said Donohue. Of primary concern is that most of the people buying ghost guns are, for criminal or other reasons, not supposed to have access to guns in the first place.
"The bottom line is, it's pretty unusual that there's a really legitimate reason for a ghost gun," Donohue said. With "more gun dealers in the United States than Starbucks and McDonald's combined," he said it's fairly easy for a legal buyer to find and purchase an already assembled firearm.
"With no checks and balances, you're really going to find yourself in a position where the guns are going to get in the wrong hands," he said, adding that the black market is now "saturated" with illegal weapons. "And unfortunately, individuals who are really targeting these types of firearms are the ones that are either prior felons or engaging in criminal activity."
Though Sena said law enforcement has made some progress in the last year, he thinks what's being uncovered is just the tip of the iceberg.
"When you talk about getting a handle on the situation," he said, "I think we have a long way to go.
"We have no clue how many of these firearms are actually still on the street," he added. "But we know that, when we seize things, there's much more of the things that we seize out there than we've got. Because that's the way the market works."