Teens in New Jersey are increasingly buying ghost guns online, homemade firearms that are difficult to trace and have been used in several recent shootings.
Law enforcement agencies have recovered 275 illegal ghost guns in New Jersey between February 2021 and February 2022. The Justice Department said police departments across the nation seized at least 25,785 ghost guns last year, counting only those weapons submitted to ATF for tracing, even though they don’t have serial numbers and largely cannot be traced.
Ghost guns are kits that can be assembled into working firearms without a background check. They are often purchased online and shipped to homes, making them easy for teens to obtain.
There have been several incidents in New Jersey involving teens who were found with ghost guns and the untraceable weapons are becoming easier to obtain.
Ghost guns are not registered and do not have serial numbers, making them difficult to trace and making it harder for law enforcement to solve gun crimes.
The Division of Criminal Justice Gangs & Organized Crime Bureau obtained a 36-count indictment charging nine defendants with numerous weapons and narcotics offenses, including charges related to the ghost guns.
Fourteen guns were recovered in that investigation, including six ghost gun AR-15 assault rifles and parts for two more, but the ringleader, Christoph Stoner, who was sentenced on July 10, 2020, and received a 14-year prison term, will be eligible for parole on November 28, 2023.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), along with state and local law enforcement agencies, began investigating a firearms trafficking network, operating largely in Paterson and Bayonne, in December 2022.
Ghost guns were used in a series of retaliatory assaults and homicides committed by Newark street gang members, involving members of the Grape Street Crips street gang who operate in the Oscar Miles Housing Complex and rivals in the Bloods street gang who operate in the areas of Fabyan Place and Voorhees Street, Elizabeth Avenue, and the Bradley Court Housing Complex.
In one case, a 16-year-old boy was arrested in Newark after he was found with a ghost gun and ammunition. In another case, a 17-year-old boy was arrested in Camden after he was found with a ghost gun that he had used to shoot and kill another teen.
The proliferation of ghost guns is a growing concern for law enforcement officials. These weapons are difficult to trace, making them a favorite among criminals. They are also often used in crimes because they are relatively inexpensive and easy to obtain.
With the help of the anti-gun-violence group Everytown for Gun Safety, families of two teens killed in Virginia are now suing the distributor of the parts Burkard used to make his ghost gun, 80P Builder of Florida, and the manufacturer, Polymer80 of Nevada, for gross negligence in providing a teenager with a weapon when he was not legally able to buy a handgun from a federally licensed dealer.
In 2021, the number of guns recovered was 19,344, meaning seizures rose 33 percent the following year. ATF has linked ghost guns to 692 homicides and nonfatal shootings through 2021, including mass killings and school shootings.
Ghost guns are created by using a metal or polymer “frame,” for handguns, or a “receiver,” for rifles. The frames and receivers, which have no serial numbers on them, are often referred to as an “80 percent lower,” meaning the lower part of the gun, which is 80 percent finished.
The other 20 percent involves some drilling and machining so that the other parts — the slide, the barrel, the firing mechanism — can be attached to the frame or receiver.
Some companies sell the frames or receivers with a “jig” — in which to place the parts and help users drill and finish the gun — and some sell all the necessary parts in a complete gun-building kit.
Online videos provide instruction on how to build an unserialized gun.
Making a homemade gun isn’t illegal, but transferring an unserialized gun to someone else is illegal.
Because many ghost gun parts manufacturers do not consider their “80 percent” frames or receivers to be firearms, they do not believe they are required to conduct any background checks or to refuse to sell to teenagers.
A full ghost gun kit can cost between $800 and $1,000, according to websites that sell them.
“The only purpose these weapons serve is to remain undetected in the commission of violent crimes,” said Colonel Patrick Callahan, the superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, who said ghost guns are a serious threat to public safety.
To try to stem the ghost gun tide, the Biden administration and ATF last year published a rule that clarified that frames and receivers qualify as firearms under the Gun Control Act of 1968, and require serial numbers and background checks before being sold. The law has long defined “firearm” to mean any weapon that “is designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projectile” or “the frame or receiver of any such weapon.”
But the parts makers quickly challenged the new rule in court. In two courts, they were defeated. But in the federal court of northern Texas — the same jurisdiction where a judge recently imposed a ban on abortion pills — the ghost gun makers found a sympathetic ear.
U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor ruled that the new ATF rule exceeded the agency’s authority under the Gun Control Act, writing that “the liberty interests of law-abiding citizens wishing to engage in historically lawful conduct … outweighs the Government’s competing interest in preventing prohibited persons from unlawfully possessing firearms.” Late last month, O’Connor issued a decision vacating the rule.
The case is being appealed to the Fifth Circuit, which is considered to have a right-wing conservative bias, and if the Justice Department loses there it could go to the Supreme Court.
Dudley Brown, the president of the National Association for Gun Rights, said he is against all regulation of privately made firearms, calling the practice of building weapons a “long and storied tradition in America.”
Brown, who has built guns with 80 percent kits and molded lower receivers from blocks of aluminum, said he has encouraged companies that sell kits to sue the Biden administration over its ghost gun order.
“I believe it’s very rare that a 15-year-old will make a homemade pistol,” Brown said. “That is an extremely difficult process.”