State and local prosecutors say they are concerned about an apparent increase in the weapons, which can be assembled from parts ordered online.
Miguel Russo should not have been able to own a gun. He had a felony conviction on his record and had shown signs of mental illness.
Yet when Syracuse police responded to a report that a 6-year-old boy had been shot in the back in the winter of 2019, they found Mr. Russo, gun in hand.
The boy survived. But when Mr. Russo threatened the police officers with the gun, he was shot and killed. Only later did investigators learn that the weapon Mr. Russo had somehow acquired was a “ghost gun” — a firearm without a serial number assembled from parts that can be ordered online.
Mr. Russo’s death was a sign of things to come. Two years later, with shootings in New York up sharply during the pandemic, the police in New York say they are recovering a growing number of ghost guns, and the weapons are receiving new attention from prosecutors.
Last month, the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., indicted Francisco Martinez, 38, and Maria Ovalles, 29, who are accused of assembling eight guns from components they had ordered online.
“These defendants turned their apartment into a small-scale gun factory,” Mr. Vance said in a statement. “Ghost guns are no longer an abstract, looming threat — they are here, and we need federal regulation to stop them.”
Both Mr. Martinez and Ms. Ovalles have pleaded not guilty. A lawyer for Mr. Martinez, who according to court documents was discovered with the guns after he fired several from the roof of his building in northern Manhattan, did not respond to an email seeking comment. Ms. Ovalles’s lawyer, Robert Beecher, noted her plea but declined to comment further.
Ghost guns, which can be built from kits available for purchase from gun manufacturers online, have been a concern for law enforcement authorities for more than a decade. The weapons stymie investigations, which rely on tracing guns to their source to find out who purchased them, when and from where, and they disrupt larger-scale analysis of gun-trafficking patterns.
Last year, as the pandemic coincided with a spike in gun purchases, ghost guns were found at an increasing rate in cities across the country, according to an analysis conducted by Everytown, the gun control advocacy group.
In New York City, ghost guns constitute a small but growing percentage of the thousands of guns seized over the last two years, according to Deputy Inspector Courtney Nilan, who leads a police unit charged with taking guns off the street.
She said that in 2020, the police recovered about 150 ghost guns, as compared with 48 the year before, and just 17 in 2018. The police also recovered 75 matched parts last year that had yet to be assembled, she said.
By August of this year, Inspector Nilan’s team had recovered about 120 of the weapons, as well as 30 matched parts that had yet to be assembled. She expects the total seized by the end of this year to exceed last year’s number.
Inspector Nilan said in an interview that the guns were now in wider circulation.
“In the past, you haven’t really seen gang members walking around with ghost guns,” she said. “A lot of times it would be the hobbyists or it would be someone who was mentally ill and couldn’t get a gun legally. And we’re seeing this year, that 17-year-old gang member either stopped on the street or in a car, and he has that ghost gun now.”
Prosecutors around the country have adopted a number of strategies to fight the spread of ghost guns. In San Francisco, where last year nearly half of all recovered guns used in murders were ghost guns, the district attorney, Chesa Boudin, has filed lawsuits against three organizations that sell the weapons online.
“Traditional law enforcement approaches to gun safety are not working,” said Mr. Boudin in an interview. “It’s far more effective to prevent these companies from dumping guns onto our streets by the tens of thousands than to sit back and idly hope that police can seize all of these unlawful guns one at a time.”
Manhattan is not seeing close to the same level of saturation as San Francisco. But along with charging individual defendants, Mr. Vance and the New York State attorney general, Letitia James, have called upon the Biden administration to implement a rule proposed by the Department of Justice that would expand the definition of a firearm to include the parts that make up a ghost gun. Doing so would close a loophole that advocates of gun control say has allowed the weapons to proliferate.
The National Rifle Association opposes the rule, saying that it will “do nothing to address violent crime.”
New York’s Legislature in June passed two bills to prohibit the sale of ghost guns and parts that can be combined to make them. The bills have yet to be signed. A spokeswoman for Gov. Kathy Hochul said that the new administration was reviewing the legislation.
The Democratic nominee to replace Mr. Vance, Alvin Bragg, said in an interview that the intrusion of ghost guns into New York was frightening and added in a follow-up email that he applauded Mr. Boudin’s litigation to hold ghost gun manufacturers accountable.
“We need to pursue similar strategies here to get these dangerous weapons off our streets,” he said.
Mr. Bragg’s opponent, Thomas Kenniff, said that he’d support legislation that would require mandatory prison sentences to deter people from trafficking ghost guns.
Mr. Kenniff also called for the restoration of the Police Department’s plainclothes anti-crime units, a policy that Mr. Bragg opposes but is supported by Eric Adams, the Democratic nominee for mayor, over the objection of police critics who have pointed to the units’ history of aggressive tactics.