(Alex Wong | Getty Images)
On Aug. 24, new federal regulations will take effect to reduce the proliferation of untraceable, privately assembled firearms. Popularly known as “ghost guns,” these firearms have become steadily more common in southeastern Wisconsin. Their cryptic nature brings new challenges for law enforcement, particularly in states with loose gun laws.
Every year, any given police department may encounter, seize or collect large quantities of firearms. Last year alone, the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) recovered 3,279 firearms. While 2,918 of them are kept in evidence as part of ongoing investigations, the remaining handful are stored for “safekeeping.” Gun seizures reached a three year high, accompanying a rising homicide rate, with Milwaukee County experiencing 222 homicides in 2021.
Through its Fusion Center, MPD is able to access the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN). Facilitated through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the program automates ballistic evaluations and intelligence to provide potential leads. Various aspects of a firearms history can be traced not only through serial numbers, but also from bullets recovered from crime scenes and other evidence.
Last year, the MPD conducted 3,209 trace requests and recovered 3,279 firearms. Going back to 2019, when MPD recovered 2,621 guns, the department conducted 2,171 trace requests. That rate of 83%-84% was maintained into 2020, when homicides in Milwaukee began to rise. Nearly 3,100 guns were recovered, with the department conducting 2,586 trace requests. By the end of 2021, the department had conducted 3,209 trace requests, increasing the recovery rate to 98%. This same period of time, however, is also when ghost guns began to trickle into Wisconsin’s largest city.
Prior to 2020, an MPD spokesperson told Wisconsin Examiner, the department had never encountered a ghost gun. In 2020, as the pandemic shut down economic activity and people took to the streets, MPD collected eight of the sly weapons. The following year the police seized 37 ghost guns. Between January 1 and July 28 of this year, 68 ghost guns have been recovered by MPD. Although eclipsed by the number of traceable firearms recovered annually by MPD, the number of ghost guns in the city has risen by 85% since first appearing in 2020.
By their nature, ghost guns are much more difficult to trace through NIBIN. Over in the city of Kenosha nearly an hour away, they’re even more commonly encountered by police. On June 17, a Kenosha Police Department’s (KPD) Twitter page post stated the police had seized a ghost gun from a convicted felon. The weapon was also equipped with an extended magazine. “The suspect will also be facing drug charges,” the tweet states. “Wonder what the drugs tested positive for? FENTANYL.”
Lt. Joseph Nosalik, KPD’s public information officer, noted that Kenosha’s ghost guns are often P-80 lower units. These are similar to the very popular Glock handguns, and follow the familiar formula of ghost guns being assembled from individual gun parts. “People buy the lower receiver and then buy the rest of the parts and assemble,” explained Nosalik. “So instead of buying a manufactured firearm from a dealer, they order it in pieces and none of the pieces have a serial number.” Kenosha PD has only encountered ghost handguns, and has not encountered rifles nor 3D printed guns. “Serial numbers are important to follow the trail of the gun,” Nosalik told Wisconsin Examiner. “This helps with tracking down and prosecuting those who do the ‘straw purchase.’”
Those kind of gray market buys happen a lot in Wisconsin, where private transactions involving guns aren’t tracked. It’s why the Badger State is a place where the “gun show loophole” is prized or despised, depending on who you ask. As of July 26, KPD had recovered approximately 11 of the P-80 style ghost guns. In 2019 the department recovered 177 ghost guns, followed by 213 in 2020, and 292 in 2021. So far this year, KPD has recovered 157 ghost guns in all. Kenosha PD records very few homicides. From 2017 to 2019, the department experienced 4 to 7 homicides yearly. The number jumped to 15 in 2021, while just four have occurred so far in 2022.
In May, following a series of shootings in the downtown area, elected officials in Milwaukee blasted Republican inaction on gun safety legislation in the state. Three months before, a GOP bill was introduced in the Assembly to protect gun dealers and manufacturers from being held liable for crimes committed with their firearms.
Between 2015 and 2017, according to the Trace, there were four gun dealers or manufacturers that were issued warning letters by the ATF. One store in Milwaukee failed to report the sale of two or more pistols to an individual. Another over in West Allis racked up eight violations related to failure to obtain identification or other information from individuals receiving firearms, and failing to report the sale of pistols. A store in New Berlin received similar violations, while a Waukesha gun store failed to maintain records showing receipts or dispositions of firearms.
In 2017, a Kenosha gun shop received eight violations including failing to “mark frames or receivers with required information.” The shop also failed to maintain records showing transfers, who received the firearms, and failed to record forms showing “importer, type, model, caliber or gauge, and serial number of the firearm being transferred.” The new federal regulation of ghost guns covers several bases. It redefines regulations around firearm frames or receivers, which ATF regulations hadn’t adequately addressed before.
Marking certain gun parts will also be required, including serial numbers and record keeping by licensed dealers. However, the new revisions do not ban gun kits, nor do they affect penalties for crimes committed with ghost guns. In early 2020 a ghost gun was used to ambush two federal protective service officers in California. Although right-wing media blamed Antifa, the shooter was identified as 32-year-old Steven Carrillo, part of the far right, anti-government Boogaloo movement, PBS Frontline reported. Armed with an automatic short-barreled rifle, Carrillo opened fire killing one of the officers, David Patrick Underwood.
A shadow has also lingered over the gun debate in Kenosha since 2020. Protests and civil unrest attracted armed militia-style groups, toting AR-15 rifles and patrolling neighborhoods looking for protesters. Then-17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, armed with an AR-15, killed two protesters and wounded another during a confrontation. Rittenhouse was acquitted in November 2021, but the events have left a bad feeling in the community. During a Kenosha County board meeting in June, a man speaking against a local push to allow guns on school grounds was arrested by deputies and taken into custody. Kevin Mathewson, a former Kenosha alder who posted an invitation to militia members to come to Kenosha during the unrest on a Kenosha Guard militia Facebook page, was at the meeting and spoke in defense of removing the prohibition on firearms in county buildings. Local residents reportedly assisted deputies in the man’s arrest, while others chanted “shame.”
Kyle Johnson, political director of Black Leaders Organizing Communities (BLOC) in Kenosha, feels the heaviness left over from the conflict and Rittenhouse shootings every day. Growing anxiety around guns has seemingly caused even more people within the community to arm themselves. For Johnson himself, a lot of that anxiety also comes from the strained relations with KPD. Nevertheless, Johnson told Wisconsin Examiner, there is more agreement among gun owners in Kenosha that more regulations aren’t a bad thing. Johnson, a gun owner himself, feels that people who educate themselves about guns reach an understanding that “a lot of these laws that gun owners are asking for make sense.”
Johnson is concerned about the growing trend of ghost guns in Kenosha and elsewhere. “The fact that there are guns that aren’t traceable, and we don’t know whose hands they’re getting in, definitely that’s something that keeps me awake,” said Johnson. “Because we’ve seen a fervor, a certain rising movement … I’m not even going to say their names and uplift them, but there’s been certain groups and militias — they refer to themselves as militias — that want people to lose rights that they’ve had. They’re actively campaigning for it. They’re actively talking about another civil war. When we’re talking about ghost guns, I don’t want to come to a point in this country where folks can print guns in their home, and they can go out and shoot up a grocery store. And that crime is going to be a lot harder to trace, and bring somebody to justice because it was a ghost gun.” He added, “this speaks to the fact that we need people in office who know the moment.”
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