DA Bragg takes on YouTube’s role in hosting ghost gun assembly tutorials

Manhattan DA Bragg at a table with ghost guns on it
NYPD Inspector of Criminal Intelligence Courtney Nilan, left, Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg, center, and ADA Bonnie Seok discuss YouTube videos on 3D-printed guns.
Photo by Max Parrott

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg broadened his war against “ghost guns” on Wednesday by singling out a new source for the spread of illegal firearms: YouTube.

Bragg, along with a top NYPD official, described a “games to guns” pipeline, a phenomenon where YouTube’s algorithm eventually directs viewers of shooter-style video game tutorials to 3D printing instruction videos for creating ghost guns — unlicensed firearms that are difficult to track.

“I think it’s important from this seat to say, ‘We are seeing actual cases with actual people with ghost guns who are telling us they got the ghost gun because of YouTube,” Bragg said.

During a presentation, the DA’s office showed a progression of YouTube screenshots starting with a gameplay video of the popular “Call of Duty” video game that documented how after 15 minutes of clicking on suggested videos, they were presented with tutorials on how to 3D-print ghost guns.

So far in 2024, the NYPD has seized 57 guns made with 3D-printed components — a significant bump from the 42 that were seized in all of 2023, said NYPD Inspector of Criminal Intelligence Courtney Nilan.

“This is a new phenomenon,” Nilan said. “Any year prior to last year, the most 3D printed guns seen in the city was only four. So you could see how quick that jump happened. And that jump did happen because of what DA Bragg was talking about: how this is so easily accessible online.”

woman showcases a ghost gun during press conference with Manhattan DA Bragg about illegal guns including ghost guns
NYPD Inspector of Criminal Intelligence Courtney Nilan showcases a gun that investigators made themselves in their research.Photo by Max Parrott

Half of defendants learned about ghost guns through YouTube

Assistant District Attorney Bonnie Seok said that around half of the defendants that prosecutors have interviewed on charges related to possessing unlicensed, 3D-printed firearms, mentioned that they learned how to build ghost guns through YouTube. But when reporters pressed about how the progression of the so-called “games to guns” pipeline brings youth from playing video games to being arrested for criminal gun possession, the NYPD did not identify one clear trend.

Nilan said that the alleged crimes that result in the arrests are “a mix.”

“You can’t really pigeonhole. It could be somebody with potentially non-nefarious intentions that just is in possession of this, which causes a dangerous situation. Or somebody who’s looking to produce these at such a cheap cost and fill them and sell ’em,” she said.

Bragg’s office has sent YouTube and its parent company Google a letter detailing its concerns over the video platform’s hosting of 3D gun instruction videos and algorithms that inadvertently feed these videos to young people.

YouTube’s own Community Guidelines explicitly bans “content intended to sell firearms, instruct viewers on how to make firearms, ammunition, and certain accessories, or instruct viewers on how to install those accessories.” Yet Bragg showed that the content continues to persist on the platform. A casual search for “how to print a 3D gun” on YouTube brings up instructional videos that seem to violate YouTube’s own terms.

“We’ll carefully review any videos the Manhattan DA’s office shares with us. We recognize our work in this area is never done and we remain committed to removing any content that violates our policies,” said a YouTube spokesperson.

Bragg said that some of the videos his office identified had been up for an extended amount of time, and that the videos have been the target of advocacy groups against gun violence way before his office raised it to YouTube.

“Sadly, this is not a new issue. We’re seeing an uptick in Manhattan. We’re seeing it emerge in our practice. And so we wanna sound the alarm,” Bragg said.