The rise of recycled and ghost guns

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When the Rochester Police Department disposes of guns, they disappear in fire.

“They get melted down,” says Capt. Greg Bello. The process makes sure that neither the firearms nor any parts of them can ever be used again.

Two other Rochester-area law enforcement agencies also turn their discarded guns into shapeless metal, but a third has only the weapons’ essential components destroyed. The remaining parts are sold on the open market. Those parts can become the components of new firearms, some of which could be difficult-to-trace “ghost guns.”

Recycled and ghost guns have posed challenges for law enforcement agencies and communities across the nation. According to the research arm of Everytown, a nonprofit organization devoted to gun violence prevention awareness and educational work, there is at least one seller in 26 states across the country who is selling the core building blocks for a ghost gun.

The rise of recycled weapons has made proper gun disposal even more critical, especially in cities like Rochester where gun violence has risen since the pandemic, prompting officials into action.

Firearm acquisition

Local law enforcement agencies acquire non-service firearms from a variety of sources. The family of a deceased pistol owner might surrender that person’s gun until it can be legally registered.

“They’ll turn them over to us, typically until they can find a way to get them on someone else’s permit,” says Detective Sergeant Sam Ross of the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office.

Those accused of domestic violence might be legally required to surrender their guns.

“A court may mandate that the weapon be removed from the residence, or (where) the person in question may live,” Ross says.

Buyback programs can bring in hundreds of firearms. Of the 5,334 guns RPD has in its storeroom, 612 came from the buybacks the agency held in 2019 and 2021. Gun owners who surrendered their weapons took home gift cards worth as much as $100 in 2019, and iPads and gift cards in 2021.

Criminal investigations also bring in large numbers of guns. Ninety-eight percent of the approximately 1,800 guns that New York State Police Troop E collected from 2018 to 2023 in the 10 counties it covers were taken from criminals or found at crime scenes, says Trooper Lynnea Crane, the unit’s public information officer. During that period, RPD collected 4,998 guns under the same circumstances.

Disposal methods

Local law enforcement agencies can’t destroy all the guns in their storerooms. Some firearms must be held until they are no longer needed in investigations or for criminal court cases.

“If someone’s being held in prison, for example for a gun charge, we have to hold that gun as evidence until they’re out, basically in case they ever appeal it,” Ross says.

Others can eventually be destroyed. Since 2018, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office has sent 1,048 firearms to the Covanta resource recovery facility in Niagara Falls to be melted down.

“We transport them ourselves to an industrial incinerator and observe their entry into the pit,” says Deputy Eric Perkins.

RPD takes its discarded weapons to Nucor Steel of Auburn, where they are melted down for scrap. In 2023, 872 guns went into the plant’s furnaces. Of Troop E’s firearms, 1,006 have been destroyed in the past six years by companies that have been hired for that purpose, Crane says.

“The guns are destroyed in their entirety,” she says. “Generally, they use a shredder, but they have melted them as well.”

Nucor doesn’t charge law enforcement agencies for its services, but Covanta does. A third company that takes in agencies’ discarded weapons goes either way, depending upon the circumstances under which the weapons come to the company.

Gunbusters, a Missouri-based firm that has licensees around the country, collects firearms from police departments and other law enforcement organizations and feeds them into its patented Firearms Pulverizer, which literally tears them to pieces. Depending on a customer’s wishes, the firm can completely destroy the guns for a fee or shred only their receivers or frames free of charge.

Receivers and frames, in a nutshell, are the primary components of handguns, rifles and other long guns. By federal law, the receivers or frames of commercially manufactured guns must bear serial numbers that can be used to register and trace those firearms. According to U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives standards, when those parts of firearms are destroyed, the weapon itself is considered to have been destroyed.

After it shreds a firearm’s central component, Gunbusters puts the weapon’s remaining parts—gun barrels, bolts and the like—on the open market where they can readily be purchased, no background check required. In some cases, the parts are sold in “build-your-own kits” that lack only a frame or receiver.

During one three-week period in 2023, Gunbusters and its licensees made 2,400 sales of gun parts through the online auction site GunBroker, raking in more than $290,000. According to the firm’s website, it has destroyed over 200,000 firearms for 950 law enforcement agencies around the country.

The Wayne County Sheriff’s Office became a Gunbusters customer in 2022, when it tendered 61 handguns, rifles and shotguns to the company, which destroyed the guns’ frames or receivers.

“The part of the firearm that they’re destroying is the serialized part, and that’s what the ATF and the New York State classifies as a firearm,” Ross says.

The recycling problem

J. Adam Skaggs, chief counsel for the Giffords Law Center, a nonprofit that seeks to prevent gun violence, says discarded firearms should be completely destroyed.

“Recycling the bulk of the firearm back into a market that is unregulated and doesn’t even require background checks is problematic,” he says.

The problem, for Skaggs, is that after the serialized parts of guns are destroyed, their remaining components can be combined with other receivers or frames and assembled into what are called “privately made firearms.”

Making a PMF could be fairly easy for anyone who’s handy with simple tools. A hobbyist or firearms enthusiast with a build-your-own kit could purchase the missing frame or receiver from a federally licensed firearms dealer and assemble the resulting collection of parts into a PMF.

Those who don’t want to buy a frame or receiver on the open market might be able to make one with Defense Distributed’s Ghost Gunner 3.

Ghost Gunner 3, the third generation of the Texas firm’s Ghost Gunner series, is a computer-controlled tabletop milling machine that can be used to create some parts of guns.

Once the machine is set up, the operator needs only to place what is called an “80 percent” frame or receiver, (a metal blank that’s mostly completed) in the machine, turn it on, and let it work. The finished part can form the heart of a working firearm. Ghost Gunner 3, which is about the size of a microwave oven, is sold online and through dealers across the country.

Skaggs calls Ghost Gunner machines “a menace to society.”

“It’s just so ludicrous on its face to suggest that these machines are not designed for illegal gun trafficking,” he says.

For those who don’t want to deal with metal shavings, there are frame and receiver kits available from the firm Polymer80. The kits contain 80 percent completed polymer frames or receivers, along with the jigs, drill bits and other tools needed to finish them for use. From the way the process is described on the Nevada company’s website, a kit owner needs only simple tools and an electric drill in order to make the part needed to complete a working firearm.

Owners of modern 3-D printers may not need to order a kit from Polymer80 to create most of the parts of a firearm.

“You can download the blueprints on how to accomplish it right to the printer,” says ATF Special Agent in Charge John DeVito. “Next thing you know, you’re making Glock-style pistols in the comfort of your own home.”

Convicted felons can’t legally possess guns of any kind, but most other people can legally make and keep PMFs.

“People have been making guns themselves since this has been a nation,” DeVito says. “It’s not illegal by any means.”

Though the sale of products like Ghost Gunner 3 is legal, such machines, along with kits and printer programs for the making of PMF’s, might be driving up the numbers of ghost guns that law enforcement agencies are seeing on the nation’s streets.

“In a number of cities around the country, the recovery of ghost guns has, over the last several years, increased exponentially,” Skaggs says.

ATF depends on law enforcement agencies to report the numbers of ghost guns they recover, DeVito says, and the agencies don’t always identify them correctly. Even with the resulting potential for error, the number of ghost guns in the country appears to be growing. In 2021 alone, criminal investigations around the country yielded approximately 20,000 reports of suspected ghost guns, a tenfold increase over 2016.

Closer to home, ATF and RPD investigations resulted in the recovery of 86 ghost guns in Rochester in 2023, up from just seven in 2018. A number of those illegal firearms incorporated receivers or frames made from kits.

“Polymer80 is probably the most common that we deal with,” Bello says.

A report by Brady, a nonprofit dedicated to ending gun violence, found that of the ghost guns recovered in Rochester, those with parts from Polymer80 rose from less than 0.2 percent of the total in 2018 to 7.8 percent in 2022.

Federal and state laws originally did not mandate that homemade firearms’ receivers and frames bear serial numbers that could be used to trace them. That changed in 2021, when New York passed the Scott J. Beigel Unfinished Receiver Act and the Jose Webster Untraceable Firearms Act.

In essence, the two laws combine to prohibit ghost guns and the unserialized parts used to make them. The following year, ATF mandated that firearm “parts kits that are readily convertible to functional weapons … are subject to the same regulations as traditional firearms.” Firearm kit manufacturers must now imprint serial numbers on the kits’ frames or receivers, and anyone wishing to buy them must pass background checks.

DeVito notes that ATF doesn’t have the resources to focus closely on ghost guns, which currently constitute no more than 6 percent of the firearms that law enforcement agencies across the U.S. regularly recover.

“Our focus is 100 percent when that gun (is) turned to some illegal purpose,” he says.

At the same time, ATF has been training law enforcement personnel nationwide to recognize PMFs and take those that are illegal off the streets.

“A recent training session at the ATF Field Office in Rochester had approximately 100 law enforcement officers from 30 different area police agencies,” says Assistant Special Agent in Charge Michael Curran.

That could benefit Rochester, where 248 incidents involving firearms occurred in 2023 alone. The toll of those incidents: 43 fatalities.

Mike Costanza is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

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