So far this year, the NYPD has seized or found at least 200 “ghost guns,” firearms that lack any serial numbers and are assembled from component parts, usually ordered online. That figure surpasses last year’s total of 145, and dwarfs the 48 recovered in 2019 and 17 recovered in 2018.

“It is definitely something we are treating as an emerging problem, and I expect the numbers to continue to increase in New York City,” said Courtney Nilan, an NYPD inspector in the department’s Intelligence Bureau. “When you look at the exponential growth, that is what is alarming.”

Ghost guns have become increasingly popular in recent years, especially in jurisdictions where gun control regulations make it difficult for ordinary residents to obtain guns legally.

“Right now, if you buy one of these guns online, you don't have to go through any background check,” said Christian Heyne, vice president of policy at Brady, a gun control advocacy group. “You don't have to do anything at all. They’re cheap, and if you have ever put together Ikea furniture, you can put together one of these firearms.”

Unlike in other major cities’ across the country, ghost guns now account for only a small percentage of New York City’s overall firearms recoveries—about 4%, the NYPD estimates. But Nilan contends the homemade weapons are on their way to becoming a fixture of violent crime in the city, and the lack of serial numbers make them harder to investigate.

“We cannot run that gun through any internal New York City department databases or any external databases, which are used to potentially link that gun to other shooting incidents,” Nilan said.

Over the last three years, the legality of ghost guns has been in flux in New York and across the country.

In 2019, the New York City Council passed a bill that criminalized the possession of unfinished gun frames and receivers, key components needed to assemble a gun at home. But court records show residents have continued to get their hands on the parts needed for ghost guns.

This September, a Bronx man was arrested for gun possession after reviewing surveillance footage which appeared to show him getting into a firefight with other men on a crowded street in front of a bodega. When police raided the man’s apartment, they found a ghost gun that resembled the weapon seen on video, according to a federal complaint outlining the case.

In October, the NYPD arrested another man in Queens it had been investigating for allegedly buying firearms parts on the internet. When officers stopped his car in Richmond Hill, prosecutors said, they found two assault rifle ghost guns along with seven other completed ghost guns.

Queens DA Melinda Katz

Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz announces several arrests involving “Ghost Guns.”

Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz announces several arrests involving “Ghost Guns.”
Source: Queens District Attorney’s Office

This year, lawmakers and other elected officials have attempted to crack down even further.

Last month, New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed a law that will largely prohibit the possession and sale of the unserialized parts needed for ghost guns across the state when it goes into effect next year. The Biden administration has also proposed national regulations that would require serial numbers for ghost gun parts and background checks for would-be purchasers.

Law enforcement and gun control supporters praised the coming regulations.

“The recently signed New York state legislation and federal proposals restricting ghost guns are laudable steps to address the problem of ghost guns and to reduce their availability on our streets,” Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz said in a statement. “At a time when ghost guns are being built and stockpiled in our neighborhoods, we must do all that we can to stop their proliferation. Maintaining the status quo is not an answer.”

But some anti-prison activists and gun rights advocates oppose such laws, arguing they’ll fuel mass incarceration and empower police to conduct more stops and searches in Black and Latino neighborhoods.

“The criminalization of possession is not the solution to ending gun violence,” said Jackie Gosdigian, senior policy Counsel at the Brooklyn Defenders. “Incarceration does not actually prevent violence, but instead inflicts more harm and more punishment on the same communities already targeted by police.”

Sociological research across the country has found that many people in poor Black and Latino neighborhoods carry guns because they fear for their own safety. A 2020 Center for Court Innovation study, for example, surveyed more than 300 young people from New York City neighborhoods suffering from high gun violence. More than 80% said that they’d personally been shot at and reported having carried a gun at some point in time.

For Gosdigian, this points to the need to fund violence interrupter programs and other community initiatives, rather than arresting and incarcerating gun offenders.

And some in law enforcement admit that not all ghost gun arrests are the same.

“Right now, many ghost gun cases that we see involve gun buffs or hobbyists, and not many gang members,” said an official at one prosecutor’s office in the city who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But, of course, we always have concerns about illegal guns in our streets.”

In Manhattan, a woman named Maria Ovalles is currently facing criminal charges because police allegedly found eight ghost gun pistols in the Hamilton Heights apartment she lived in with a man named Francisco Martinez.

Ovalles has no criminal history, but was arrested after prosecutors allege Martinez was caught on camera climbing to their building’s roof with a gun, where he’s accused of firing several rounds into the air and leaving behind shell casings.

At a court hearing on Monday, prosecutors noted DNA tests of the guns found in the apartment had still not come back from the city’s lab. Outside the courtroom, Ovalles’ lawyer expressed hope for his 29-year-old client.

“We’re confident that as the case moves forward, it will resolve itself favorably for Ms. Ovalles,” Robert Beecher, the attorney said.

An attorney for Martinez declined to comment.

Heyne, the policy expert at Brady, believes New York’s new law, along with Biden’s proposed federal regulations, could work to prevent national companies from selling unserialized gun components. “Our hope is that with policies like this, you will be able to effectively shut down that market,” he said.

But if buying parts for ghost guns online becomes harder, the NYPD is also concerned that those interested in ghost guns might turn to 3D printers to assemble hard-to-trace guns at home.

“A few years ago, a 3D printer was a lot more expensive than a 3D printer is now,” Nilan said. “So with 3D printer prices dropping, and if, in fact, the ghost gun market has dwindled, that is something we definitely need to keep an eye on.”

For the first time ever, the NYPD says it’s recovered a handful of 3D printed guns this year.