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Baltimore Police say use of ‘ghost guns’ is increasing, with more connected to homicides and shootings

Baltimore Police say the use of “ghost guns” is on the rise in the city, with a top-ranking department official saying that officers are on track this year to seize up to 300 of the untraceable firearms that can be built from kits.

More than a dozen of the weapons were linked to homicides and shootings in the city last year.

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During a discussion about privately made firearms, Deputy Commissioner Sheree Briscoe said Tuesday that the department has recovered 83 ghost guns as of mid-May. Baltimore Police said they recovered 126 of the weapons last year, and Briscoe said the department expects to seize 250 to 300 privately made firearms by the end of the year through criminal investigations.

The numbers have spiked since 2019, when only 29 of the weapons were seized. And some end up in the hands of teenagers as young as 14 years old, the deputy commissioner said.

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“It has really picked up in a way that we could not have predicted in policing,” Briscoe said.

Her comments came during a discussion held by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy, which looked to address some of the questions about how homemade firearms affect law enforcement and communities in Maryland.

A proposed rule by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives would expand the definition of a firearm to include kits, require the parts to have a printed serial number on them, and make sellers run background checks on buyers. The rules are made to match regulations on fully assembled firearms.

Some Maryland legislators also looked to impose more regulation at the state level, introducing legislation earlier this year that would require serial numbers and registration for privately made firearms. The General Assembly did not vote on the bill this past legislative session.

Of the 126 privately made firearms recovered by city police in 2020, Briscoe said 15 were linked to homicides or shootings either after officers recovered them at shooting scenes or through follow-up investigations.

With Baltimore having recorded 335 homicides in 2020 and hundreds more nonfatal shootings, Briscoe acknowledged that those firearms still only represent a small percentage of guns used in the commission of crimes, but added that it’s still a growing problem.

“Though to some, that may not be a large percentage ... any percentage that’s attributed to a gun that’s not legally registered, not legally manufactured with serial numbers is a challenge,” Briscoe said. “Because we run the difficulty of trying to find [out] where did that gun come from? Who may have possessed that gun?”

Josh Horwitz, the executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, said current firearms regulations inhibit public health researchers’ ability to investigate the factors that lead to their use in violent crimes. They also create a black market for the weapons.

“That’s what we think about in public health. What are the access points? What are the vectors and how do we eliminate them?” Horwitz said. “With untraceable firearms, we have no idea where those vectors are.”

In its proposal, the ATF said that it has attempted to trace the origin of 23,946 ghost guns recovered, but only succeeded with 151 of the weapons.

Briscoe said the seemingly open market for such firearms presents a unique challenge.

“There are many different ways, legal ways, that you can purchase something on the Internet. You can purchase something in another arena and have it mailed, shipped [or] delivered,” she said. “And so ... the challenge with these weapons is that there [are certain assumptions] that are often made about how they’re moving versus a gun that was legally purchased or initially legally owned.”

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