Ghost guns are haunting New York City streets, and for the last several years, the NYPD has been working hard to stop the importers and users of these deadly weapons.
At a Jamaica, Queens crime lab facility, law enforcement agents are using world-class technology and expertise to help combat this new era in which criminals — including those legally prohibited from owning firearms — can purchase and build their own untraceable guns right in their own homes.
amNewYork Metro was provided with an exclusive opportunity to learn more about the NYPD’s efforts to stop the flow of ghost guns amid the department’s ongoing battle to stop gun crime across the Five Boroughs.
Inspector Courtney Nilan, commanding officer of the field intelligence program, sat at a table in a gun range and looked down at a collection of ghost guns. She has helped lead the fight against unlawful weapons for over two years revealed that these weapons are hitting the streets at an alarming rate.
“As of today, we have recovered–in New York City–95 ghost guns, year to date. And just to put that into perspective: the same timeframe last year, we recovered 23. So, as you see, that’s over a 300% increase just this year. If the numbers continue the way they are, it’s going to surpass the number last year. The total number last year was 375 in New York City,” Inspector Nilan said.
Ghost guns can be purchased in pieces online and shipped to a person’s home where they can follow internet guides to create fully functional firearms, some of which are modeled of real weapons, such as the Glock Gen4 handgun.
While a Glock has a serial number, the ghost gun version of the handgun does not. The parts are made of mostly plastic. Much like a model boat or car kit, the purchaser of the ghost gun uses instructions to assemble the weapon.
And for an unscrupulous individual, the ghost gun offers them an opportunity to purchase a firearm while completely skirting the law. The lack of a serial number on the weapon also complicates efforts by law enforcement to pin a gun crime against the user.
Using internal detective work to identify online sellers, of which currently stand at about 115 internet retailers, the NYPD officials are now in a much better position when it comes to pinpointing unlawful gun buyers.
“So, what we’re looking for is, through a legal process, getting the orders and shipping records of several of these online retailers. So, what we’re doing is we’re seeing who and where in New York these gun parts and gun kits are being shipped to,” Nilan said. “We’re looking for individuals who are convicted felons. We’re looking for individuals who have a domestic violence history. We’re looking for individuals who have some sort of emotionally disturbed history.”
According to Nilan, these retailers are accessible through a Google search and passwords are not required to access the sites. Once purchased, buyers will be mailed a kit complete with the firearm’s lower receiver. However, the way in which these weapons are distributed continues to evolve.
In the beginning of March 2022, the NYPD arrested Brooklynite 30-year-old Deonte Haynes for not only selling ghost guns, but for also 3D printing them, something that will alter the fight drastically.
“That was the first operation and investigation that the New York City Police Department has done into an individual where we obtained information that they were printing firearms, printing extended magazines, and additionally printing auto sears,” Nilan said, disclosing just how deadly a plastic handgun can become.
“An auto sear is also known as a Glock switch and what an auto sear does — it’s very small, it looks like a little toy Lego, first time I saw it I didn’t know what it was a couple years ago,” Nilan said. She went on to note that a simple modification of the weapon can turn it into “basically a machine gun.”
For Nilan, education is an imperative factor. Understanding not only what a ghost gun is, but also how it works can save lives on both sides of the blue line.
“One of the biggest hurdles in law enforcement is education because this is a new trend and this is something that came up pretty quick,” Inspector Nilan explained. “There’s still police officers that might not know the differences between a ghost gun and a regular gun.”
Even potential criminals are at risk. Since ghost guns are made of cheap plastics, Nilan told amNewYork Metro, the weapons have been known to backfire on the user, or even explode in their hands like a firework.
“There are potential chances that it might blow up in your hands. It might shoot the wrong way, it might backfire on you. That is definitely a safety risk. But other than that, and this is something that all police officers and the public need to know, is that this is basically a fully functioning firearm,” Nilan said.
Nilan shared that education about ghost guns is a double-edged sword since the more people know, the greater access criminals have to that information.
“It’s giving awareness to common citizens and law enforcement of what these are and the danger of them. But what it’s also doing is it’s giving a criminal element that might not have known about it before this same awareness,” Nilan said.
But she believes the benefits outweigh the risks. With popular video sharing websites showcasing tutorials on how to assemble personally made firearms under the guise of education hobbyists, Nilan says that in the last two years the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives haven’t received one firearm to serialize in order to make them legal.
With New Yorkers now having the capability to print guns, Nilan said, the dangers to police officers and the public need to be recognized.
Currently, those 3D printing ghost guns still need to purchase the higher receiver separately in order to make them functional, yet with criminals now making guns from scratch in their own homes it is unclear how long this will be the case.
“Even three years ago, if you told me somebody could 3D print a gun at home, costing them about $15- $20, I would probably told you, you are crazy. So, I’m not a technological wizard, but I always say where there’s a will there’s a way and we see a lot of the criminal element getting very inventive lately,” Nilan said.
In our second part of this series, running on March 22, amNewYork Metro will delve deep into the crime lab and discover how the NYPD trace untraceable ghost guns.