Ghost guns on the rise in Wisconsin as federal government prepares to act


On Aug. 24, new federal regulations will take effect to reduce the proliferation of untraceable, privately assembled firearms. Popularly known as “ghost guns,” these firearms have become steadily more common in southeastern Wisconsin. Their cryptic nature brings new challenges for law enforcement, particularly in states with loose gun laws.

Every year, any given police department may encounter, seize or collect large quantities of firearms. Last year alone, the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) recovered 3,279 firearms. While 2,918 of them are kept in evidence as part of ongoing investigations, the remaining handful are stored for “safekeeping.” Gun seizures reached a three year high, accompanying a rising homicide rate, with Milwaukee County experiencing 222 homicides in 2021.

Man with gun in his jeans
 James Carroll | Getty Images Plus


Through its Fusion Center, MPD is able to access the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN). Facilitated through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the program automates ballistic evaluations and intelligence to provide potential leads. Various aspects of a firearms history can be traced not only through serial numbers, but also from bullets recovered from crime scenes and other evidence.

Last year, the MPD conducted 3,209 trace requests and recovered  3,279 firearms. Going back to 2019, when MPD recovered 2,621 guns, the department conducted 2,171 trace requests. That rate of 83%-84% was maintained into 2020, when homicides in Milwaukee began to rise. Nearly 3,100 guns were recovered, with the department conducting 2,586 trace requests. By the end of 2021, the department had conducted 3,209 trace requests, increasing the recovery rate to 98%. This same period of time, however, is also when ghost guns began to trickle into Wisconsin’s largest city.

Prior to 2020, an MPD spokesperson told Wisconsin Examiner, the department had never encountered a ghost gun. In 2020, as the pandemic shut down economic activity and people took to the streets, MPD collected eight of the sly weapons. The following year the police seized 37 ghost guns. Between January 1 and July 28 of this year, 68 ghost guns have been recovered by MPD. Although eclipsed by the number of traceable firearms recovered annually by MPD, the number of ghost guns in the city has risen by 85% since first appearing in 2020.

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