Exclusive: Ghost guns on the rise and how to spot them

It’s a trend that is on the rise.

"What we have right here, this is a one-shot firearm," Courtney Nilan, Executive Officer of the Intelligence Division in the NYPD explained. "This was one of the first designs in 3-D printing."

And it’s called a ghost gun -these untraceable firearms put together by unlicensed gun owners are becoming increasingly popular.

They are also shockingly cheap to make. Ghost guns are made by 3-D printers which now can cost as low as $200.

Then for example – a tiny piece of plastic – which is called a machine gun conversion device - costs less than three dollars to make – and it can turn a semi-automatic pistol into a machine pistol. 

"Something so simple…takes the AR-15 from a semi-automatic rifle platform to a fully automatic machine," John DeVito, the Special Agent in Charge of ATF in New York State explained. "These are being manufactured in the millions and distributed and sold in our country."

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And although it’s hard to tell the difference – one way to spot a ghost gun?

"If you look close, you can see those fine lines," Nilan said pointing to a gun. 

In 2023, the NYPD seized around 400 ghost guns in New York City – this compared to 2019 when just 48 of these guns were confiscated.

In 2019, when these guns started to pop up more frequently –the Major Case Field Intelligence team was formed – this team is made up of NYPD officers, the ATF and local district attorneys in order to track, seize and prosecute ghost gun crimes.

"Our only goal right now is to make sure that we have all the intelligence available, that we're educating our partners and work in training the officers on the street to be able to identify these types of weapons," DeVito said.

Licensed gun owners are technically allowed to use a 3-D printer to print a gun.

For everyone else - right now under New York law, it is illegal to possess a ghost gun and if found with one – that person can be charged with a felony.

But charging retailers can be difficult – for example, ghost gun kits can be sold online and later assembled in a person’s basement – and these kits or parts can be found on places like Facebook Marketplace or Amazon. 

"We have seen parts such as the solvent and other parts hanging from kind of a hanger and they bill it as wind chimes," Nilan said.

In order to try to combat this growing number of ghost guns, those on the ground are asking state lawmakers to close two loopholes.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg says they are backing legislation that would make manufacturing a ghost gun illegal and allow him to charge this person with a felony.

Their team is also backing another bill that would make it illegal to posses the sketches that are used to make a gun.

"Also we're seeing in the chat rooms where those are exchanged, a lot of extremism and hate talk," Bragg said. 

Besides just legislation, this team is also hoping to educate parents to be on the lookout.

"We are seeing these tech savvy youth who are engaging in the construction of these 3-D printed firearms," Nilan said. "We're seeing them talk to each other online about it."

"When they see either like this in their kid's playroom where they think it's harmless, or it's a Nerf gun or just goofing off with people - be aware and be cognizant of what your children are involved in," DeVito said.

DA Bragg says he is looking to state lawmakers to pass that bill cracking down on ghost gun manufacturers this legislative session.