The nation's capital has already seen 200 homicides in 2021 -- the highest number since 2004 with another month and a half left in the year.
Officers have taken more than 2,000 guns off the street and, as the city works to curb gun violence, there is growing concern over ghost guns, which are sold as parts and then assembled by the customer.
Ghost guns have no serial number, require no background check and can sometimes even evade a metal detector. The Metropolitan Police Department has found them at murder scenes and on kids as young as 13. The I-Team tracked the numbers and found a record number of ghost guns already recovered in the District this year.
"This is something that we should really, really, really continue to be concerned about," Police Chief Robert Contee said.
Ghost guns are just as deadly as the ones made by gun manufacturers, but gun making kits are easier to buy, often sold online with step-by-step instructions explaining how to assemble the parts into a working firearm. Because they're homemade, ghost guns don’t have serial numbers.
"It makes it more difficult when you talk about firearms that we're not able to trace," Contee said.
That makes it almost impossible for detectives to track who owned a gun before the moment officers found it, which makes it challenging to link suspects to a specific crime. In September, a ghost gun was found after a triple homicide on Longfellow Street.
"The guns in the wrong hands of people who shouldn't have them certainly are the problem," Contee said.
It’s problem that's growing exponentially.
- In 2018, officers in the District recovered 25 ghost guns.
- In 2019, that jumped to 116.
- In 2020, ghost gun recoveries more than doubled to 282.
- And in 2021, ghost gun recoveries are already at 313, with another month and a half left in the year.
"It's something we've been working on our laws to help make them tighter and to really make sure that we crack down on that," said D.C. Councilman Charles Allen, who chairs the council's public safety committee. "We've given the attorney general more authority that he's now exercising to go after these people who try to sell these kits online."
Allen said ghost guns are a nationwide problem that needs a nationwide solution.
"We have tough gun laws, but remember, we're a fairly small place surrounded by jurisdictions that do not share the same values or the same laws, and so those guns come in from outside the District," Allen said.
Hobbyists and collectors argue they build their own guns for legal purposes, and the federal government has so far held that gun parts are not subject to the laws that regulate guns until they're fully assembled.
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"You have people now who have gone into the business of making their own firearms from gun pieces," said Contee, adding that he also worries about who is buying the ghost guns.
The I-Team found of the 280+ ghost gun arrests so far this year, nearly 100 have been teenagers.
"It's something that our young people easily have access to, criminals easily have access to, and we find ourselves in these situations where we're seeing members of community who are on the receiving end of this gun stuff," Contee said.
Next week, D.C. police expects to announce a new effort to target ghost guns in the District in collaboration with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Reported by Jodie Fleischer, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper. Skye Witley contributed to this report.