Do-it-yourself ghost guns
Organised criminal networks turning to homemade untraceable firearms as weapons of choice
A “majority” of the stash of firearms seized in Montego Bay, St James, on Friday are homemade untraceable ‘ghost guns’, a fast-growing phenomenon in which they have become the weapons of choice for violent criminals and gunrunners.
These so-called ghost guns are typically made from parts loosely purchased online without background checks and do not bear serial numbers, making it almost impossible to detect their use in criminal activities.
Nearly 22 guns were seized at the wharf in Freeport, Montego Bay, during a joint operation between the police and Jamaica Customs Agency on Friday.
“To the best of my knowledge, there were no serial numbers on a majority of them,” Deputy Police Commissioner Fitz Bailey told The Sunday Gleaner.
The latest gun find brings to 33 the number of illegal firearms seized in St James since the start of the year.
A large quantity of assorted ammunition was also among the shipment, which originated in the United States, Bailey confirmed.
The cache of guns and bullets, which were packaged with legitimate goods, were detected by Customs personnel, who alerted the police, National Security Minister Dr Horace Chang disclosed to The Sunday Gleaner.
Chang declined to reveal the intended recipients, citing the ongoing investigations.
‘ORGANISED CRIMINAL NETWORKS’
“When those kinds of guns reach here, we know it is being sent here by organised criminal networks. They are the only ones who have the resources and the technical connections to go and get them built for export illegally,” said Chang, who is also deputy prime minister.
Research conducted by Everytown for Gun Safety, a United States-based advocacy group, estimates that the sale of ghost guns began around 2014 and has since exploded into a major crisis for American law enforcement agencies.
The group was founded by former New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg.
It noted that sellers provide all the necessary parts for a functional ghost gun supported by claims that key parts can be made in as fast as 15 minutes, often at rates below assembled firearms sold at retail outlets.
It noted, too, that an expansion in unregulated commercial sources makes ghost guns increasingly easier and inexpensive to make and “attractive” to violent criminals and gun-traffickers seeking to evade law enforcement.
“It perhaps is not then surprising that law enforcement agencies are recovering homemade, un-serialised firearms from criminals at alarming rates,” said the report, which examined 100 federal prosecutions involving ghost guns.
‘MAJOR PROBLEM ON TOP OF A BIG PROBLEM’
An influx of ghost guns into Jamaica could have grave implications for law enforcement authorities already grappling with a high rate of gun-related crimes, former Deputy Police Commissioner Novelette Grant has warned.
Jamaica recorded an average of just over 1,000 murders annually in the last decade, 80 per cent of which involved a gun, according to police statistics.
A routine part of any investigation involving gun crimes, Grant said, is to identify the weapon that was used through the unique marking on all firearms as well as to identify the person who had possession of it.
“The ones that are untraceable based on manufacturing, no serial number, no identifying markings … make it so much harder for police investigators and forensic people to be able to figure out which guns are doing what,” she said.
“This creates, as you can well see, a major problem on top of what was already a big problem.”
Further, Grant, who briefly acted as Jamaica’s first female police chief, said a proliferation of ghost guns in Jamaica could make it more difficult to secure convictions for firearm-related offences.
“To go before a court of law, you have to establish that this is the gun that was used in this particular incident and it was used by a particular individual,” she explained. “So, the whole investigative process becomes more challenging and the whole prosecution process becomes more challenging when you can’t really definitively say this is the gun.”
Chang acknowledged that tackling the inflows of ghost guns will present a challenge, but said new collaborations with international partners and new collaborative approaches between local law enforcement agencies “will pick up on the suppliers and the purchasers”.
“The investments we made are paying off … . We just have to be very intense and very aggressive at our ports of entry, both legitimate and the unofficial ones.”
NEW FEDERAL RULE
Last December, the US implemented a new federal rule, which some experts say will close a major loophole in regulating the sale of parts used to make untraceable do-it-yourself ghost guns.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives directed vendors who sell partially finished frames of Glock-style handguns – the pistol grip and firing mechanism – to treat them like fully completed firearms, which are subject to federal regulations.
The directive, which was outlined in an open letter to federally licensed gun dealers, requires sellers to mark the parts with serial numbers and that purchasers undergo criminal background checks.
Vendors and manufacturers who fail to comply with the technical requirements could face penalties ranging from the possible loss of their federal licences to criminal prosecution.
Gun rights advocates are expected to mount a legal challenge to the new directive.
In the meantime, calls continue to mount for the US government to take decisive action to stem the flow of illegal guns into the Caribbean, including Jamaica.
• 6, 921 – the number of murders recorded in Jamaica over the last five years.
• 80 – the percentage of murders that involved the use of a gun.
• 3,200 – the number of illegal guns seized in Jamaica between 2018 to October last year.
• 53,000 – the number of bullets seize between 2018 and October last year.
• 33 – the number of illegal firearms seized in St James since the start of the year.
• 104 – the largest number of firearms seized over 35 days in 2022 in the last four years.