OLEAN — While New York state legislators want to ban untraceable “ghost guns,” which lawmakers say are becoming more prevalent in criminal cases, law enforcement officials in Olean and Cattaraugus County say they have yet to encounter the untraceable firearms.
“We very rarely come across a gun — thank goodness and knock on wood — of any kind on our calls or in traffic stops,” Olean Police Chief Jeff Rowley said. “It’s just not something that our officers encounter very often — and certainly not these so-called ‘ghost guns.’”
The Times Union of Albany reported this week how some law enforcement agencies across the state have begun seizing the guns — which are 80 percent finished to avoid federal regulations — that mail-order companies send to online buyers. Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick, whose county includes Syracuse, said last week his office has more than 20 criminal cases involving the home-assembled firearms.
Very few states, including New York, have laws specifically prohibiting the purchase, possession or sale of ghost guns. Kits used to build the guns are sold online, getting around federal and state laws by providing “unfinished” hardware with the drill bits and instructions — including video tutorials — needed to complete a fully functioning firearm.
The handgun and rifle kits have been dubbed ghost guns because the self-manufacture weapons have no serial numbers and are unregistered — although once a kit is assembled to function as a firearm they are subject to state laws governing registration and permitted ownership.
The concern on the part of lawmakers is that untraceable firearms can be brought into New York state and get into the hands of individuals who could never pass a federal background check. Upstate New York residents may buy certain firearms through online sources, but the firearm must be shipped to a federally licensed dealer and the buyer must undergo a background check before taking possession.
“I am going to be pushing for closing the ghost guns’ loophole and make certain that we do not allow unfinished parts to evade our gun laws and threaten New Yorkers,” said state Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, whose bill would make it a felony for anyone other than a federally licensed gunsmith to assemble a firearm.
Two months ago, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed into law a measure that would prohibit the building of so-called “3-D” plastic guns that are made from high-tech printers. But Hoylman said the state’s gun laws need to be expanded to explicitly outlaw ghost guns, which are prohibited in New Jersey.
“What is left to be addressed is the issue of unfinished frames and parts that can be assembled through kits,” he said.
Olean’s police chief said he certainly understands why there would be concern over untraceable firearms, noting that criminals will “find a way” to circumvent gun laws. But he noted that the vast majority of Olean-area residents are hunters and recreational shooters who follow the law.
Rowley said the city’s police officers understand that firearms are in many homes, and they take precautions especially when responding to domestic violence calls, but criminal gun activity remains rare.
He noted that, since the passage of the SAFE Act in December 2012, which included provisions banning the sale or transfer of certain semiautomatic rifles and magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, he can recall only one instance of a violation of SAFE Act measures — a man was found with a high-capacity magazine in his vehicle.
Cattaraugus County District Attorney Lori Pettit Rieman said there are no cases involving ghost guns in the county.
“There’s certainly no shortage of firearms in the county,” she said, “but most violations result from illegal possession of a firearm by individuals who can’t legally own one” because of a criminal record. Illegal modification of firearms, such as sawing off a shotgun barrel, also occur, she said.
Still, like Rowley she also understands the concern over ghost guns, particularly since firearms are found so often in the possession of people involved in the illegal drug trade. She said dealers keep firearms for protection, while guns are sometimes used as a kind of currency in that world, as people trade them for drugs.
“You’ll see someone get a new rifle for hunting … but then sell it for drugs, that kind of thing,” she said.
The head of the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association told Newsday the sale of ghost guns is a growing problem.
“These ‘80 percent’ guns are providing a way for prohibited people to buy a firearm,” Tom King of the NYSRPA said, referring to people who don’t have a gun permit or are otherwise prohibited from possessing a gun.
He said self-assembled guns provide a way for competition shooters to make a custom-fitted firearm. Such weapons should have serial numbers and be registered — and any new legislation should consider such a provision, he said. But it appears increasingly, King said, people trying to evade the law are the ones buying and selling self-assembled weapons.
“It appears what was meant to be something for competitive shooters and serious shooters to build their own unique firearm may be turning into a criminal enterprise,” King said.