NORTH CAROLINA (WTVD) -- Federal and local lawmakers are scrambling to regulate a weapon being used more and more in communities across the nation.
Privately-made firearms called 'ghost guns' have gained national attention in recent years as they are increasingly being used in crimes including school shootings.
The guns look and operate like ones purchased at gun stores, but a few key differences allow felons to own a gun and make it harder for police to solve crimes.
Nationwide, these guns have nearly tripled in the last few years.
As officials scramble to catch up, loopholes in regulation remain; leading to the opportunity for more of these untraceable weapons to make a mark on our streets at a time the country works to curb gun violence.
"He's putting together a gun."
Torrey Green has lived in Durham for decades. He's experienced the good and the rough parts of the Bull City and is now helping to steer teens away from gun violence. That's why when he got the call from a relative about a shipment of random parts, he knew exactly what it was.
"I went over and I saw that it was pieces and parts of a gun," Green explained. "She asked me, 'What is this?' And I told her he's putting together a gun."
Green said his relative's teenager had been buying gun parts online and assembling them in their Durham home.
What is a 'ghost gun'?
These kits sold online contain the parts needed to make anything from a handgun to an AR to a rifle. Once assembled the privately-made firearm is coined a 'ghost gun' because they do not contain a serial number, an element used to track the owner and seller.
For years, it was legal to buy these kits and build your own gun without a background check and serial number. Transferring the firearm to another person once it is built, however, is illegal.
These kits have evaded other federal gun regulations because they weren't considered full guns.
"These are guns that are 80% complete and within a period of minutes, you can make it a fully operable handgun," North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein explained.
For years, this loophole allowed national companies to sell parts across state lines without running background checks.
As the awareness of the ease of ordering and assembling guns spread, so has the number of guns. Nationwide, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) reported law enforcement has obtained more than 45,000 of these privately-made firearms since 2016. Between 2016 and 2021, these firearms increased by 1000%. As the number of physical ghost guns increases, so does the severity of the crimes they are connected with.
Federal data shows they have been connected with nearly 700 homicides or attempted homicides over the last five years.
In North Carolina, the ATF reported a seven-fold increase in the number of ghost guns taken off the street between 2020 and 2021. Last year that number grew again; jumping from 400 to 900.
"There's no question that the proliferation of these ghost guns has been dramatic," Stein said. "They are a menace to our community and that's why they need to be regulated."
Despite the reports of a dramatic uptick in these weapons, the true scope of the weapons is unknown.
"I think there are far more ghost guns being used in crimes and we know about or then we have an opportunity to see right now," said Michael Easley Jr., the United States Attorney in the Eastern District of North Carolina.
The ABC11 I-Team found many local law enforcement agencies aren't tracking how often these guns are used in crimes.
The Raleigh Police Department, the Wake County and Durham County Sheriff's Office said they were not tracking this data.
"These guns are very prevalent."
The Fayetteville Police Department recovered 97 unserialized guns since 2017. Meanwhile, the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office said they've just seen a handful over the last few years. Both agencies cautioned that these could include guns that initially had serial numbers but were scratched off.
The State Crime Lab also reported they just started seeing an uptick with around 13 cases involving ghost guns over the past year.
The Durham Police Department said it first came across a privately-owned firearm in 2020 when it recovered three from scenes. Last year, the department reported over a 2200% increase with 70 unserialized weapons recovered.
"These guns are very prevalent right now because our kids are finding new ways to arm themselves," Green said.
He said he hears more teens ordering parts rather than stealing guns.
"Most of the time these kids are looking for instant outcomes,' he explained. "Their motto is, 'I'd rather get caught by the police with it than to get caught by the opps without it.' So for them to carry a gun it's a part of what we say in our cultures; it's a part of their outfit."
Green said the increase of these weapons in Durham is concerning, especially given the violent crime the city is already trying to combat.
"They definitely scare us because in this community, we already got a big issue out of gun violence. So for our young men to for this to be so easily accessible to them is very disturbing," Green said.
Ghost guns have been tied to four homicides in Bull City. Around 14% of the guns were tied to a violent crime, but most were associated with drug cases (72%).
Ally Anderson, the Firearms Unit supervisor in Durham Police's Forensic Services Division, said these weapons represent a small percentage of the weapons that the department takes into evidence; around seven percent.
The lack of serial numbers doesn't make her job impossible but it does make it tougher.
"It's just another piece of the puzzle that we are missing," Piatt said. "Obviously, if you buy a gun at a gun store and you turn around and use it in a crime and we confiscate it, we'll know the time from the crime, we know who bought the gun and where the gun originated from. We don't know that with a ghost gun."
Anderson said about 25% of the privately made firearms they investigate are able to be linked to other past crimes in the city.
"I think we're seeing often that when we're testing one of these guns, they end up being linked to different types of crimes. Maybe we confiscate them on a gun crime but those shell casings found in the street two months ago, come back to that gun. And what we're seeing is that those guns are being used multiple times," Piatt explained.
While these guns are still representing a small percentage of weapons seized by law enforcement, other cities have seen a rapid increase. Los Angeles law enforcement agencies reported these type of guns rose to account for 40% of weapons seized in 2021.
"It is a small percentage, but when you've had a seven-fold increase from 2020 to 2021, this tells you that this is a growing concern. And we want to get ahead of the curve on this and not wait until ghost guns are absolutely everywhere to get them under control," Stein said.
Piatt said he does expect the number of ghost guns in Durham to continue to rise.
"I think so is the availability of the kits remains high. As the availability of kits remains high, we're going to see them increase. Now, other states have taken legislative steps to try to prevent these," Piatt explained.
North Carolina is not one of those states.
What's being done
"We're in the midst of unfortunately, an increase in violent crime, gun crime, and we've got to do everything we can to keep our community safe," Stein stressed. "One thing that we can do is get rid of ghost guns, not get rid of them, but make sure that they are subject to the same protections as any other type of gun because that's what they are."
Around 12 states have enacted tighter restrictions on ghost guns, according to data tracked by Every Town for Gun Safety, a gun violence prevention organization. These policies include reporting ghost guns to officials, requiring serial numbers, and not allowing gun parts to be 3D printed.
North Carolina is not one of the states that have adopted any further state regulation.
"North Carolina hasn't done anything about those guns. And so they stand to take the full brunt of an industry that is really intent on putting lots of guns into the hands of people who wouldn't be able to get them by traditional means," said David Pucino, the deputy chief counsel at Gifford's Law Center. The Gifford's Law Center is a law center and nonprofit organization that promotes gun control laws in the U.S.
Stein said due to the nature of ghost gun sales, impactful action needs to stem from the federal government. Over the past few years, his office has urged the ATF to take stricter action.
"There's no question that the federal government plays a critical role because the internet enables somebody in North Carolina to buy a gun that was manufactured in Utah. So the federal government has to set uniform rules," he said.
In 2020, Stein joined attorney generals across the country in a federal lawsuit against the federal government. The lawsuit aimed to prevent blueprints of 3-D firearms from being released online.
Last year, the federal government finally took some notable action.
The Biden Administration issued guidance in 2022 to make these unfinished parts subjected to the same regulation as completed firearms.
"It does alarm me."
A new rule in April 2022 required gun manufacturers to complete background checks and add serial numbers to parts.
"This isn't about denying anyone the right to buy a ghost gun. It's saying if you buy a ghost gun, do a background check. Let's make sure you're not a criminal and have a serial number so that if this gun is used in the commission of a crime, we can identify where it came from," Stein said. "These apply to all other gun purchases. Why should ghost guns be different? They shouldn't be."
Some companies have been able to avoid compliance by receiving exemptions through rulings with the courts.
Despite, the crackdown, the ABC11 I-Team purchased parts for a popular name-brand handgun online after the rule went into effect and received parts without serial numbers and the site did not conduct a background check.
"That wouldn't surprise me at all," Pucino said. "It does alarm me."
Pucino explained after federal leaders moved to make ghost gun kits subjected to the same laws as fully assembled guns, some companies continued to sell parts but separated the kit; making customers buy the frame separately. Months later, in December 2022, ATF further clarified that pistol frames sold as part of kits are not regulated by the Gun Control Act.
Pucino said actions by individual states remain critical. State laws have the ability to enact laws that go further than the federal rule and require existing ghost guns to get serialized or outlaw the ownership of an unserialized weapon; something that is not currently required under federal law.
Pucino said municipalities and states can restrict ghost guns. He said one of the biggest impacts would be for officials to target the companies selling the guns.
"That's the point where we can intervene and be most effective. Any other solution is just going to be second, third, fourth or fifth best," he said.
Still, state and local leaders are attempting to make some impact.
"I think there is a real disconnect between the way people think about this on the street and the real consequences are when you go to federal prison and the more we can amplify that... is a huge deterrent," Easley said.
Easley's office has prosecuted a number of cases in recent years where these weapons have been connected with drug offenses. Easley is hoping to increase the number of charges involving ghost guns.
"In addition to prosecuting people, it's part of my mission to raise awareness and educate local law enforcement," he said.
His office also hosts training for law enforcement so officers know how to spot these guns and what additional charges they can prosecute.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) told the I-Team it supports the right of Americans to "make their own firearms for personal use without the permission of the federal government."
"People have made their own firearms since before the country was founded and there is no valid reason any law-abiding person should be barred from possessing them. If federal, state and local governments are interested in making their communities safer, they should enforce the laws on the books and arrest and prosecute criminals who break the law," NRA said in a statement to ABC11.
As gun violence and gun rights, both remain key issues in communities across the nation, striking the balance between the two as they connect to ghost guns will remain an ongoing challenge.
"Nobody wants firearms in the hands of terrorists or criminals or the mentally dangerous. But the question is, how do we do that without interfering with the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens to possess and use their firearms?" said Campbell University law professor Wallace Gregory. "That's the conundrum and I think that one of the difficulties posed by this whole thing of homemade firearms is reconciling the long tradition that we've had in America of people building firearms at home with the government regulation."
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