The number of ghost guns — unlicensed, unregistered, untrraceable firearms — recovered in the state has tripled over the last three years. Long Island law enforcement officials spoke with NewsdayTV's Steve Langford about the issue. Credit: Newsday Staff; Office of NY Attorney General Letitia James

Seizures of ghost guns — or privately manufactured firearms — increased dramatically last year in Nassau and Suffolk counties, according to Long Island law enforcement officials, who are concerned that the easy-to-obtain, difficult-to-trace weapons pose a significant threat to police and public safety.

People assemble them out of kits they can order online, or they can buy them from dealers, which makes it difficult to trace because they usually lack serial numbers, officials said. Ghost gun owners also are unlikely to get licenses for the weapons or undergo mental health screenings and criminal background checks, numerous law enforcement officials told Newsday.

“Without those checks and balances, where there is nobody checking, nobody doing that mental health check, we don’t know who is in possession of these weapons,” said Nassau District Attorney Anne T. Donnelly, who created the Firearms Suppression and Intelligence Unit last year to combat illegal weapons in the county. “Law enforcement enters homes at different times for different things … Before they go in, they check to see if anybody in the home has a license for a gun. Now, if you make one of these, they are not going to know, and they don’t know what they are walking into.” 

On Long Island in 2022, Suffolk police seized 55 ghost guns, up from 33 the previous year, according to Commissioner Rodney K. Harrison. Nassau police seized 48 ghost guns last year, up from 10 in 2021, Commissioner Patrick Ryder said.

A report issued by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives in February — the agency’s first review of guns and crime in 20 years — called ghost guns “an emerging issue.”

The number of suspected ghost guns recovered by law enforcement agencies nationwide and sent to the ATF for tracing increased 1,083%, from 1,629 in 2017 to 19,273 in 2021, the report said, indicating “increased criminal use.” 

“It has been steadily increasing for the last three to four years,” an agent with the ATF’s New York division said of ghost guns. “It is still a very small fraction of what we see out there … but each year, it is growing.” Newsday is not naming the agent because he has received death threats due to his job.

Ghost guns can be created with 3D printers, but the majority of homemade weapons seized on Long Island were manufactured using kits that people can buy online for several hundred dollars, police said. The kits, like Ikea furniture, often come with the tools required to turn the components into an operable firearm.

“It’s not rocket science,” the ATF agent said. “You are only drilling out a few holes and cutting out a bit of plastic. It tells you where to cut.” 

Rookie ghost gun builders can find instructional videos on the web. All of that, the ATF agent said, makes ghost guns “highly marketable for the criminal element.”

Robert Gaafar of Rockville Centre, an anti-gun violence advocate who survived the 2017 mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas that killed 60 people, said it is “terrifying” to see the explosion in difficult-to-trace weapons in recent years. 

“From a survivor’s standpoint, it is scary that someone can obtain an un-serialized gun without a background check,” said Gaafar, now a volunteer with Moms Demand Action and a senior fellow with Everytown Survivor Network, a gun control advocacy organization.

Long Island law enforcement officials said the number of ghost guns they have seized in recent years represents just a fraction of those in circulation. 

“Do I think that there are more ghost guns than we are recovering? Absolutely,” Donnelly said. 

Long Island has registered some notable seizures of ghost guns recently.

In December, authorities in Suffolk seized ghost guns during an investigation of the No Fake Love gang, Harrison said. No Fake Love has been tied to a murder outside a Farmingville nightclub, violent carjackings and the shooting of two teenagers outside Rep. Lee Zeldin’s home, Suffolk District Attorney Ray Tierney said.

In February 2022, Nassau police arrested Paul Carey, a Massapequa dentist, for possession of 30 firearms, including 18 ghost guns. Carey, who pleaded not guilty to dozens of felony charges in July, is scheduled to return to Nassau County Criminal Court on April 14, records show.

Also in February 2022, FDNY firefighter Aaron Martin Jr. was arrested in Queens for possession of two ghost gun kits. Six assault weapons and ammunition were later recovered from his North Baldwin home. Martin agreed to a deal in January that kept him out of prison if he pleaded guilty to criminal possession of a firearm.

Investigations at the state level also have yielded important finds.

New York Attorney General Letitia James announced earlier this month that three men who allegedly sold firearms to undercover investigators were charged in a 123-count indictment. Authorities seized 19 firearms, including 12 ghost guns, during the 16-month investigation by New York City, state and federal authorities. One of the defendants previously worked for a gun manufacturer and tutored potential buyers on how to assemble ghost guns. 

In December, James announced a 438-count indictment charging three people with operating a gun trafficking ring that shipped ghost gun kits to New York. The investigators seized 57 firearms during the investigation, including 51 ghost guns. 

Concerns about the homemade firearms prompted the Biden administration to issue regulations in August that require the main components of ghost guns to be assigned serial numbers. Buyers also are required to undergo background checks, and dealers must be federally licensed to sell the kits and are required to maintain records of all sales.

“We did see a big decrease in ghost guns that come into our custody,” Harrison said. “I believe that has been a major deterrent, holding people accountable.”

New York State lawmakers passed two bills in 2021 that prohibit the sale and possession of gun components by anyone other than licensed gunsmiths and dealers. The legislation also prohibits the sale of unfinished gun frames without serial numbers.

“We don’t want to prohibit people from having a firearm,” Ryder said. “But at the same time, we want to make sure the right people get a firearm. Safety first. Any real gun person will tell you that.” 

Tanya Schardt, senior counsel for Brady, the national anti-gun violence organization, said the sale of ghost guns exploded amid concerns about personal safety during the COVID-19 pandemic and the civic unrest following George Floyd’s death while in the custody of Minneapolis police. 

“The ghost gun industry has leaned into that business model and capitalized on it,” Schardt said. 

Amy Hunter, a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association, told Newsday that ghost guns are protected by the Second Amendment and are subject to the same regulations as commercially made weapons. 

“It is still illegal for prohibited people to possess them, and those in violation are subject to 10 years in prison,” Hunter said. “People have made their own firearms since before the country was founded, and there is no valid reason any law-abiding person should be barred from possessing them.”

Ghost guns are not completely untraceable, according to the ATF agent, who said investigators can tie weapons to crimes through ballistics or shell casings. “But without a serial number, it’s much more difficult to find out where the gun came from,” he said. 

Many of the ghost guns seized on Long Island were purchased and assembled out of state and transported to New York, officials said. 

“Here in New York State, we are doing it right,” Harrison said. “I don’t want to say anything negative toward some of our Southern states, but they need to take a look at some of their laws and make sure that they have the same gold standard as the State of New York when it comes to people carrying these illegal guns, these ghost guns, and make sure people are held responsible.” 

The ATF agent said his biggest concern comes from machine gun conversion devices, plastic parts that can turn firearms into automatic weapons. That is especially concerning since ghost guns assembled by inexperienced people can be shoddy, increasing the odds that a shooter might miss their unintended target and hit innocent bystanders.

Donnelly said she took aim at getting illegal weapons off the street soon after she took office in early 2022, an effort she said was to counter what she called “a once-in-a-generation surge of illegal and untraceable weapons" into Nassau County.

“Guns in general concern us,” Donnelly told Newsday recently. “But anything that is so easily manufactured and so easy for someone to get their hands on is a concern.”

Seizures of ghost guns — or privately manufactured firearms — increased dramatically last year in Nassau and Suffolk counties, according to Long Island law enforcement officials, who are concerned that the easy-to-obtain, difficult-to-trace weapons pose a significant threat to police and public safety.

People assemble them out of kits they can order online, or they can buy them from dealers, which makes it difficult to trace because they usually lack serial numbers, officials said. Ghost gun owners also are unlikely to get licenses for the weapons or undergo mental health screenings and criminal background checks, numerous law enforcement officials told Newsday.

“Without those checks and balances, where there is nobody checking, nobody doing that mental health check, we don’t know who is in possession of these weapons,” said Nassau District Attorney Anne T. Donnelly, who created the Firearms Suppression and Intelligence Unit last year to combat illegal weapons in the county. “Law enforcement enters homes at different times for different things … Before they go in, they check to see if anybody in the home has a license for a gun. Now, if you make one of these, they are not going to know, and they don’t know what they are walking into.” 

Nassau County District Attorney Anne T. Donnelly created the Firearms Suppression and Intelligence...

Nassau County District Attorney Anne T. Donnelly created the Firearms Suppression and Intelligence Unit last year to combat illegal weapons in the county. Credit: Chris Ware

On Long Island in 2022, Suffolk police seized 55 ghost guns, up from 33 the previous year, according to Commissioner Rodney K. Harrison. Nassau police seized 48 ghost guns last year, up from 10 in 2021, Commissioner Patrick Ryder said.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Seizures of ghost guns increased dramatically last year in Nassau and Suffolk, a number of Long Island law-enforcement officials told Newsday.
  • Suffolk police seized 55 ghost guns in 2022, according to Commissioner Rodney K. Harrison, up from 33 during the previous year. Nassau County police seized 48 ghost guns last year, up from 10 ghost guns in 2021, Commissioner Patrick Ryder said. 
  • The majority of homemade weapons seized on Long Island were manufactured using kits that individuals can buy online for several hundred dollars, police said.

Ghost guns 'an emerging issue'

A report issued by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives in February — the agency’s first review of guns and crime in 20 years — called ghost guns “an emerging issue.”

The number of suspected ghost guns recovered by law enforcement agencies nationwide and sent to the ATF for tracing increased 1,083%, from 1,629 in 2017 to 19,273 in 2021, the report said, indicating “increased criminal use.” 

“It has been steadily increasing for the last three to four years,” an agent with the ATF’s New York division said of ghost guns. “It is still a very small fraction of what we see out there … but each year, it is growing.” Newsday is not naming the agent because he has received death threats due to his job.

Ghost guns can be created with 3D printers, but the majority of homemade weapons seized on Long Island were manufactured using kits that people can buy online for several hundred dollars, police said. The kits, like Ikea furniture, often come with the tools required to turn the components into an operable firearm.

“It’s not rocket science,” the ATF agent said. “You are only drilling out a few holes and cutting out a bit of plastic. It tells you where to cut.” 

Rookie ghost gun builders can find instructional videos on the web. All of that, the ATF agent said, makes ghost guns “highly marketable for the criminal element.”

Robert Gaafar of Rockville Centre, an anti-gun violence advocate who survived the 2017 mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas that killed 60 people, said it is “terrifying” to see the explosion in difficult-to-trace weapons in recent years. 

“From a survivor’s standpoint, it is scary that someone can obtain an un-serialized gun without a background check,” said Gaafar, now a volunteer with Moms Demand Action and a senior fellow with Everytown Survivor Network, a gun control advocacy organization.

Ghost guns seized 'a fraction' of those in circulation

Long Island law enforcement officials said the number of ghost guns they have seized in recent years represents just a fraction of those in circulation. 

“Do I think that there are more ghost guns than we are recovering? Absolutely,” Donnelly said. 

Long Island has registered some notable seizures of ghost guns recently.

In December, authorities in Suffolk seized ghost guns during an investigation of the No Fake Love gang, Harrison said. No Fake Love has been tied to a murder outside a Farmingville nightclub, violent carjackings and the shooting of two teenagers outside Rep. Lee Zeldin’s home, Suffolk District Attorney Ray Tierney said.

Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said his department seized...

Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said his department seized 48 ghost guns in 2022. Credit: John Paraskevas

In February 2022, Nassau police arrested Paul Carey, a Massapequa dentist, for possession of 30 firearms, including 18 ghost guns. Carey, who pleaded not guilty to dozens of felony charges in July, is scheduled to return to Nassau County Criminal Court on April 14, records show.

Also in February 2022, FDNY firefighter Aaron Martin Jr. was arrested in Queens for possession of two ghost gun kits. Six assault weapons and ammunition were later recovered from his North Baldwin home. Martin agreed to a deal in January that kept him out of prison if he pleaded guilty to criminal possession of a firearm.

State, federal efforts target ghost guns

Investigations at the state level also have yielded important finds.

New York Attorney General Letitia James announced earlier this month that three men who allegedly sold firearms to undercover investigators were charged in a 123-count indictment. Authorities seized 19 firearms, including 12 ghost guns, during the 16-month investigation by New York City, state and federal authorities. One of the defendants previously worked for a gun manufacturer and tutored potential buyers on how to assemble ghost guns. 

In December, James announced a 438-count indictment charging three people with operating a gun trafficking ring that shipped ghost gun kits to New York. The investigators seized 57 firearms during the investigation, including 51 ghost guns. 

Concerns about the homemade firearms prompted the Biden administration to issue regulations in August that require the main components of ghost guns to be assigned serial numbers. Buyers also are required to undergo background checks, and dealers must be federally licensed to sell the kits and are required to maintain records of all sales.

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Rodney K. Harrison, speaking at police...

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Rodney K. Harrison, speaking at police headquarters in Yaphank on Wednesday, said authorities seized ghost guns during an investigation of the “No Fake Love” gang last year. Credit: Newsday/James Carbone

“We did see a big decrease in ghost guns that come into our custody,” Harrison said. “I believe that has been a major deterrent, holding people accountable.”

New York State lawmakers passed two bills in 2021 that prohibit the sale and possession of gun components by anyone other than licensed gunsmiths and dealers. The legislation also prohibits the sale of unfinished gun frames without serial numbers.

The right to bear arms

“We don’t want to prohibit people from having a firearm,” Ryder said. “But at the same time, we want to make sure the right people get a firearm. Safety first. Any real gun person will tell you that.” 

Tanya Schardt, senior counsel for Brady, the national anti-gun violence organization, said the sale of ghost guns exploded amid concerns about personal safety during the COVID-19 pandemic and the civic unrest following George Floyd’s death while in the custody of Minneapolis police. 

“The ghost gun industry has leaned into that business model and capitalized on it,” Schardt said. 

Amy Hunter, a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association, told Newsday that ghost guns are protected by the Second Amendment and are subject to the same regulations as commercially made weapons. 

“It is still illegal for prohibited people to possess them, and those in violation are subject to 10 years in prison,” Hunter said. “People have made their own firearms since before the country was founded, and there is no valid reason any law-abiding person should be barred from possessing them.”

Ghost guns are not completely untraceable, according to the ATF agent, who said investigators can tie weapons to crimes through ballistics or shell casings. “But without a serial number, it’s much more difficult to find out where the gun came from,” he said. 

Ghost guns seized on Long Island come from elsewhere

Many of the ghost guns seized on Long Island were purchased and assembled out of state and transported to New York, officials said. 

“Here in New York State, we are doing it right,” Harrison said. “I don’t want to say anything negative toward some of our Southern states, but they need to take a look at some of their laws and make sure that they have the same gold standard as the State of New York when it comes to people carrying these illegal guns, these ghost guns, and make sure people are held responsible.” 

The ATF agent said his biggest concern comes from machine gun conversion devices, plastic parts that can turn firearms into automatic weapons. That is especially concerning since ghost guns assembled by inexperienced people can be shoddy, increasing the odds that a shooter might miss their unintended target and hit innocent bystanders.

Donnelly said she took aim at getting illegal weapons off the street soon after she took office in early 2022, an effort she said was to counter what she called “a once-in-a-generation surge of illegal and untraceable weapons" into Nassau County.

“Guns in general concern us,” Donnelly told Newsday recently. “But anything that is so easily manufactured and so easy for someone to get their hands on is a concern.”

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