Since November, law enforcement and activists have had similarly disturbing connections with at least four school shootings; The suspected shooters used a “ghost gun”.
A “ghost gun” is a firearm that is packaged in parts, purchased online and assembled without many traces, which experts warn is becoming increasingly dangerous.
“When we first heard about these weapons, we thought anyone could get them, even a child. It’s no longer speculation,” Alex McCourt, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy, told ABC News.
McCourt, law enforcement and other experts studying the spread of the “ghost gun” told ABC News that the trend will continue outside the school setting unless policymakers take action.
According to McCourt, there are two types of weapons that fall under the Ghost Gun Moniker.
The first is a plastic gun that can be made with a 3D printer and usually fires a shot.
The second version, which he said was increasingly found in crime scenes, is a gun assembly kit that covers all parts of a gun, but without a serial number or specific component. McCourt said home-made guns bypassed federal laws that require registration and tracing.
Due to loopholes in federal gun law, kits are not considered firearms because they lack specific complete components. In addition, under current law, users are not allowed to register their manufactured weapons with the federal government.
A spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives told ABC News that the number of “personally made firearms” or PMFs recovered by law enforcement from the crime scene has increased over the years. In 2016, law enforcement agencies across the country seized 1,750 PMFs from the crime scene, and by 2020 that number had risen to 8,712, according to the agency.
“As of January 1, 2016, as of December 31, 2020, approximately 23,906 suspected PMFs have reported to the ATF that law enforcement has recovered from a potential crime scene, including 325 attempted murders or attempted murders,” said ATF spokeswoman Caroline Gowath Inn. Statement
Gwathmey said the data could be underestimated because not all law enforcement agencies submitted their PMF and “ghost gun” numbers to the federal government.
McCourt said legal loopholes allow “ghost gun” kits to be sold online and take ordinary household equipment to make in half an hour.
“It’s a lot less complicated than you might think,” he said. “If you can assemble IKEA furniture, you can assemble these weapons,” he said.
Rob Wilcox, federal legal director of Everitown for Gun Safety, a non-profit gun protection organization, told ABC News that there are several online sites that not only sell “ghost gun” kits but also provide step-by-step instructions to consumers. Any age without any supervision or background check. Wilcox says although the federal government has limited data on this online marketplace, its group’s research shows that the number of Internet-based “ghost gun” retailers has been growing for several years.
“You can send it to a place where there is no watchful eye,” he said.
The weapons recently entered the school grounds.
On November 29, a 15-year-old student at Caesar Chavez High School in Phoenix allegedly shot and wounded a 16-year-old classmate with a “ghost gun,” the Phoenix Police Department said. An investigation is under way, a police spokesman told ABC News.
Steven Alston Jr., a 17-year-old student at Magrudar High School in Rockville, Maryland, allegedly shot and seriously injured a 15-year-old classmate during an argument on Jan. 21, police said. Investigators say Alston, who was charged with second-degree murder as an adult, allegedly used a “ghost gun.”
“Three different parts were literally delivered to his home,” Montgomery County Police Chief Marcus Jones told reporters at a news conference a few days after the shooting.
Albuquerque, New Mexico, Police say Marcos Trejo, 14, shot his classmate outside West Mesa High School on February 25 while fighting with a ghost gun. Trejo has been charged with murder, police said.
The most recent incident occurred March 4, when an 18-year-old suspect used a “ghost gun” to injure two teachers and a student at East High School in Olathe, Kansas, according to prosecutors. According to Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe, Gelon Dessian Elmore has been charged with attempted murder.
In all investigations, police and prosecutors have told ABC News that they are still watching how the guns went into the hands of juvenile suspects and are warning them to spread in their community.
A spokesman for the Montgomery County State Attorney’s Office, which is investigating the shooting at Magrudar High School, told ABC News in a statement that “ghost guns have been recovered from five county schools since the beginning of the school year.”
Some states have taken legal action against “ghost guns in the light of this incident”
Nine states, including New York and California, have responded to the rise of “ghost guns” with laws requiring background checks and serial numbers for all components of kits, according to Everitown for gun protection.
New York State’s “ghost gun” regulations went into effect this fall after legislators said it had increased the number of “ghost gun” possessions across the state by 479% in the last three years.
“If you can’t pass a background check to get a gun, you won’t be able to get a gun – period,” State Sen. Anna Kaplan, who introduced one of the New York Bills, said in a statement last year.
Cities such as Denver, San Francisco and Philadelphia have passed similar laws.
Some states are considering similar laws. For example, lawmakers in the state of Maryland are debating a bill, SB 387, which would prohibit a person from buying, accepting, selling, offering or transferring an unfinished frame or receiver.
During a hearing last month, law enforcement groups and district attorney’s offices, including Montgomery County Attorney John McCarthy, pressured Maryland legislators to pass the bill.
“If you look at the rise in violent crime across the country, and especially in my county, ghost guns are involved,” McCarthy told ABC News. “The real danger of ghost guns is really twofold. Number one, forbidden people, whom we have decided not to keep guns in Maryland, can get these guns – and number two, we see that they gradually fall into the hands of children.”
Maryland Sen. Justin Reddy told the Baltimore Sun before the Jan. 25 hearing that he did not think a ban on “ghost guns” would be effective because criminals would still find ways to get weapons.
“I have a lot more respect for these gun control groups if they strongly support crackdown bills against people who commit acts of violence,” Reddy told the Baltimore Sun.
McCourt said lawmakers have been playing catch-up with ever-evolving technology and that these bills are a good start, but because of the reach of online sales, the federal government needs to take action.
“Having a patchwork of state laws doesn’t do much,” he said.
Last year, the Biden administration and the Justice Department proposed a new rule that would allow the ATF to redefine “firearm frame or receiver” and “frame or receiver” so that the agency could control “ghost guns.”
The ATF is currently reviewing public comment on the proposal, according to the White House.
Wilcox said Biden’s proposal would effectively cripple online sales of “ghost guns” and make it easier for law enforcement agencies to track kits.
Meanwhile, Wilcox said parents and caregivers need to have frequent conversations with their children about homemade gun kits.
“You need to know if your child is in crisis, you need to limit access to their gun,” he said. “That includes access to sites that sell ghost guns.”