San Francisco police are seizing an increasingly alarming number of untraceable firearms, known as “ghost guns,” that authorities say are part of the reason shootings are surging in The City.
Police have confiscated more and more ghost guns from the streets every year since officials began keeping track of the issue in 2016, from just 6 in the first year to 164 in 2020, according to Police Chief Bill Scott. The most extreme jump occurred from 2019 to 2020, when officers seized 87 more ghost guns than the year prior.
“This is probably just the tip of the iceberg if these are the just the ones that we’ve confiscated,” Scott told the Police Commission Wednesday after releasing the data. “So it’s not indicative of what might be out there.”
Unlike traditional firearms, ghost guns do not have serial numbers that law enforcement can trace back to the buyer or seller after finding the weapons at a crime scene. Ghost guns are typically sold in parts online, without background checks conducted on the buyer or seller, and assembled at home with basic tools.
The increase comes as San Francisco faces a 181% uptick in shootings over 2020, with 73 shooting victims reported to police as of Monday compared to 26 at this time last year. Scott has previously attributed the surge to group or gang violence in the Bayview, Mission and Ingleside police districts, and on Wednesday said ghost guns are another factor.
Scott said the guns have increasingly turned up during shootings, robberies and homicides.
“With the technology the way it is, where people can make guns on printing machines, guns that can shoot and kill people, we have some work to do,” Scott said. “This is an emerging area where the technology has outpaced our ability to create legislation and laws to prohibit these things.”
The problem for gun control advocates is that federal authorities do not regulate a key component needed to build the ghost guns, often called an 80% receiver, because the piece is unfinished and not considered a firearm. That means the gun parts can be sold without serial numbers by sellers who aren’t required to have a background check or license, according to David Pucino, a senior staff attorney at the Giffords Law Center.
Pucino called the issue a “loophole” that companies are more and more often exploiting.
“I’m horrified but not surprised by those numbers out of San Francisco,” Pucino said Thursday.
But President Joe Biden moved to close that “loophole” on the federal level earlier this month, when he announced April 8 that he would direct officials to draft a proposal requiring serial numbers on so-called ghost gun kits as well as background checks for buyers.
California has also taken steps to curb the proliferation of ghost guns. State legislation from 2016 requires a person who is assembling a firearm at home to apply for a serial number with the California Department of Justice and receive a background check as part of the process.
“The problem with this approach is that it puts all of the burden on the end user, not on the companies selling the ghost gun kits,” Pucino said. “Sellers are still able to freely sell these things, still no background checks, still no serialization on the seller level.”
Another piece of state legislation from 2019 will require sellers to have a background check and license, but the law does not go into effect until 2022.
Pucino said municipalities like San Francisco could and should in the meantime strengthen gun control laws at the local level.
“You don’t have to wait another year until the California law comes into effect,” Pucino said.
Supervisor Catherine Stefani, a longtime anti-gun violence advocate, acknowledged that shootings have “skyrocketed” in San Francisco during the pandemic.
“I worked on the legislation that ended gun stores in San Francisco, and I passed both expansions of the gun violence restraining order program,” Stefani said in a statement. “I fully intend to address the rapid increase in ghost guns, and I remain deeply committed to meeting the challenges of gun violence in San Francisco.”
Rachel Marshall, a spokesperson for District Attorney Chesa Boudin, said the issue a “legislative priority” for The City’s top prosecutor.
“We are appreciative of SFPD for prioritizing the seizure of these dangerous weapons,” Marshall said. “This is a growing problem and law enforcement needs new tools to address it.”
By the numbers
Ghost guns seized by year in San Francisco
- 2016: 6
- 2017: 16
- 2018: 51
- 2019: 77
- 2020: 164
Source: San Francisco Police Department