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Without a trace: How the DOJ plans to track 'ghost guns' and keep communities safer

A new ruling from the Biden Administration could change how 'ghost guns' are bought. But, it already has strong opposition.

WASHINGTON — Inside the firing range for the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, Metropolitan Police Officer Wayne Gerrish went over a haul of guns. It’s a mixed bag of several dozen rifles and handguns.

RELATED: Biden announces new 'ghost gun' rule: 'Law enforcement is sounding the alarm'

"This just came in within the last few days,” Ofc. Gerrish pointed out.

This cache of guns comes from the daily work of MPD officers and specialized units like the Gun Recovery Unit.    

Credit: WUSA9 Brielle Ashford

Each day Officer Gerrish test-fires the haul of recovered weapons for ballistics imagery. Images of unique markings on the shell casings that each fired gun leaves get logged into the ATF’s National Integrated Ballistic Information Network or NIBIN.  The database helps law enforcement find out which guns may have been previously used in crimes.

“Each firing pin will leave its own personal identifiable mark like a fingerprint, or a snowflake,” Gerrish explained.  “That's how the system takes a 3D image. Then it compares it to crime scenes, and then we'll know if it was used at certain crime scenes.”

Credit: WUSA9 Brielle Ashford
Credit: WUSA9 Brielle Ashford

Most people would look at the rack of guns waiting to be fired and never think twice about what they were seeing. But Officer Gerrish knows better. Some of these are homemade.

“You see how similar they are?” he says as he picked up two Glock-style handguns.

There are a few tiny differences between the two pistols - not otherwise noticeable - but one is factory-built. The other comes from a kit.

Credit: WUSA9 Brielle Ashford

It’s a privately manufactured firearm, also known as a ghost gun. This means it has no serial number and no associated background check; it has no trace in the gun world.

“We've seen an explosion of these firearms being recovered here in D.C.,” ATF Assistant Special Agent In Charge Chris Amon said as we sat down for an interview in a nearby lab room.

The draw for criminals to get their hands on ghost guns is obvious. You can order a ghost gun kit online, pick one up from someone who bought one or make one with a 3-D printer.

“You don't have to be overly handy,” Agent Amon said.  “With some basic tools, you know, you can assemble one of these firearms within 30 to 45 minutes”

That is why the numbers of ghost guns continue to grow.

According to the ATF, in 2019, they recovered 116 ghost guns on the streets of D.C. By last year, that number grew to 439. Of those ghost guns, Agent Amon estimates 25% were linked to shootings in the D.C. metro area.

“What we've seen through our investigations is there are individuals who are manufacturing multiple privately made firearms and then distributing them to the criminal element here,” he said.

In an attempt to curb this rising tide of untraceable weapons, the Biden administration stepped in this spring with a federal firearms rule change. Up until that point, firearm kits were not classified as firearms. That meant they did not require a serial number on the parts or a background check for purchase.

“The United States Department of Justice is making it illegal for a business to manufacture one of these kits without a serial number. Illegal,” President Joe Biden said in April, as he unveiled the new rule change.

By August, the kits used to build ghost guns most often recovered on D.C. streets will now be serialized by the manufacturer and require a background check upon purchase.

However, the new rule change already has opposition.

RELATED: SRO finds replica of firearm in Charles County 8th grader's locker, sheriff's office says

“Our attorneys are preparing a lawsuit to strike down this rule,” Aidan Johnston, the director of Federal Affairs for the Gun Owners of America said.

“This rule has nothing to do with crime and has everything to do with expanding the ATF’s illegal gun registry,” he alleged.

WUSA9 met with Johnston inside the Conservative Partnership institute near the Capitol and asked him about the rising tide of shootings committed with ghost guns.”

He responded pointing out that in the six years the ATF has found these untraceable guns, they have been used in at least 692 homicides. It’s a statistic the ATF has put on the record. But, Johnston believes the numbers show a different picture.

“That's about 115 a year, which is far less than the 400 people a year who are beat to death with hands and feet, or the 600 people a year who get beat to death with a blunt object,” he pointed out. “Congress hasn't passed a new law saying ‘we need to regulate these things.’”

Back inside the ATF building, Agent Amon stressed that getting serial numbers on ghost guns is a key component to solving crime.

“Without a serial number to go back and try to find the original purchaser, you're kind of, behind the eight ball,” he explained.

As the ATF waits for the ruling to go into effect, the NIBIN database is essential to linking ghost guns to certain crimes. Without a serial number, they rely on the firing pin’s mark to be the fingerprint of the gun.

After Officer Gerrish fires each ghost gun, the shell casing with the pin-print is 3D imaged. Officers send that file into the NIBIN system. The system returns with any other matchings of firing pin-prints on casings from other crime scenes across the area.

“In an investigation in the PMF (privately manufactured firearm) type investigation, that may be the only thing that links the firearm for us and is able to kind of give us that life of the firearm,” Agent Amon said.

WUSA9 asked Aidan Johnston what the Gun Owners of America’s response was to the rise of ghost guns being used in shootings.

“We're not focused on you know, reducing gun crime,” he explained.  “We are focused on making sure that the right to keep and bear arms does not get infringed.”

“We do advocate for every individual to carry firearms and to exercise your right to self-defense,” he finished.

It's a true American dilemma: gun rights versus gun violence.

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