Untraceable 'ghost guns' pose new worry for Green Bay-area police, threaten to serve as new currency in meth buys

A "ghost gun" confiscated by Brown County Drug Task Force officers.
A "ghost gun" confiscated by Brown County Drug Task Force officers.

GREEN BAY - Imagine being able to buy a kit to make an AR-15 rifle for as little as $345, a kit to assemble a pistol for less money — and no way for police to trace the gun back to you because there's no serial number.

That's a challenge police in northeastern Wisconsin are facing as these type of weapons, called "ghost guns," have started to turn up in police investigations in Brown County and elsewhere.

Plus, people who sell methamphetamine and other illegal drugs have discovered that such guns are something sellers are willing to trade for drugs in parts of the region.

"Trading drugs for guns is nothing new," said Lt. Matt Ronk, who worked with the Brown County Drug Task Force for about 11 of his 21 years as a sheriff's deputy. "But trading drugs for a ghost gun is a relatively recent phenomenon.

"This is a new threat."

There's a simple reason they're called ghost guns: They're untraceable because they lack serial numbers.

A ghost gun — purchased about 80% complete, made of plastic, and not requiring a serial number — was until recently a big city problem, but they have now begun to show up in suburban and rural communities. One can buy kits at retail that often come with the pieces needed to finish the gun, and the single tool to finish the assembly.

"Within an hour or two, you should be breaking it in at the range,” The New York Times quoted a seller of such kits as saying in an April 2021 story.

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Ghost guns can also be made on a 3-D computer printer, though those are much less common than the guns assembled from kits.

A bust in which Ronk was involved this past fall included a ghost gun-for-meth trade that won Ronk and fellow task-force member Jason Katers a departmental award for taking drugs and a weapon off the street. But they are concerned that as companies keep plastic gun kits simple to assemble— many advertise that a drill is the only tool needed to complete the assembly of a gun — they'll become more prevalent among illegal drug-sellers and their associates.

The rate of exchange for the trade this past fall: One ounce of meth for one gun. The man accused in the sale faces four drug felonies, as well as felonies for maintaining a drug-trafficking place and another for possessing a firearm as a convicted felon. Conviction could send him to prison for more than a decade.

Brown County District Attorney David Lasee says few such guns have shown up in local courts to date — a recent case was handled in state court. But there's little doubt that such guns can cause harm.

From unknown to mass killings

Virtually unheard of 10 years ago, such guns have become better known via recent news reports. A significant increase took place in 2013, when one was linked to a shooting at Santa Monica College in California. Six people died, including the gunman.

The guns got another boost in 2016, the New York Times reported, when people were able to buy a gun that looked like a copy of a popular Glock model. Another mass shooting followed in 2017, according to the Gun Violence Archive, which tracks shootings in which four or more victims are wounded.

By the end of 2019, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives reported that 10,000 ghost guns were taken off the streets that year, the most recent year for which nationwide figures are available. New York City seizures this year, based on the year's first two months, are on pace to reach the low 500s.

And present-day demand continues.

ATF this month charged two men with selling 28 ghost guns in mostly rural Lebanon County, Pennsylvania. They collected, on average, almost $1,000 apiece. For people with less spendable income, a kit to assemble an AR-15 can cost as little as $345, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun violence-prevention organization.

With the availability of tools like that, demand is growing. A New York City bust recently marked New York state's largest involving ghost guns to date. Wenli Bai of Maryland, NBC New York reported, tried to sell almost 130 3-D printed guns to an undercover investigator.

Smaller sales, which led to shootings, were reported in Kansas, California and elsewhere. A ghost gun was used in California, and three children and two adults were killed. Ghost guns in Kansas were recently blamed in two shootings; neither involved a death.

Sell 130 gun parts, face 7 years prison

Sheriffs, police chiefs, prosecutors and others in law-enforcement are calling on elected officials in Washington, D.C., to implement tougher laws to give teeth to the penalties for selling or using a ghost gun. Bai, the Maryland man arrested in New York, had computer-printed parts to create nearly 130 guns, but faces just seven years in prison, NBC reported.

Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul is one of 22 state prosecutors calling for anti-ghost gun legislation at the federal level.

"Ghost guns make our communities less safe," Kaul said. "The ghost gun loophole makes it easier for people who are prohibited from possessing a firearm to get one, and it can make it more difficult to solve crimes.

"The federal government," he added, "should move forward with the proposed rule closing that loophole.”

He wants gun kits that someone can buy from a gun-seller added to the weapons covered by the Gun Control Act of 1968. That would be a deterrent to people who would risk the penalties of selling a ghost gun, he said.

President Joe Biden's voice also is part of the chorus calling to reduce some of the causes of preventable violence. Legislation to strengthen gun laws has cleared the House of Representatives, but still lacks the 60 votes needed in the Senate. Nor have Democratic efforts to toughen background checks for gun-buyers gained sufficient Senate support.

Brown County Sheriff Todd Delain, a strong Second Amendment supporter, points out that departments like his continue to fight the battle against some of the sources — specifically Mexican and South American drug cartels — that create demand for meth. While he says a gun that has no serial number is a potential threat because it can't be traced, the greater danger is associated with how safely the owner handles the weapon.

Brown County Sheriff Todd Delain speaks at a news conference about the May 1, 2021, shooting at the Radisson Hotel & Conference Center.
Brown County Sheriff Todd Delain speaks at a news conference about the May 1, 2021, shooting at the Radisson Hotel & Conference Center.

"It's difficult to track it if it has no serial number, sure," Delain said. "But the thing with firearms has so much to do with the person who possesses the firearm — was it handled, stored and used properly? It doesn't matter if a weapon has a serial number if the owner leaves it on his dashboard with the windows rolled down.

"Most people know the cartels are responsible for trafficking most of the illegal drugs that make it into the United States," Delain said.

Contact Doug Schneider at (920) 431-8333, or DSchneid@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PGDougSchneider.

This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: 'Ghost guns' begin to appear in northeastern Wisconsin drug deals