As gun crimes increase, so do firearms seizures

More than 20% of the weapons recovered in Los Angeles are now untraceable ‘ghost guns’

Illustrations of seized guns with red background


Gun violence is an inescapable and heartbreaking fact of American life. The deadly shooting at a July 4 parade in Illinois followed last month’s school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and the May massacre at a Buffalo supermarket motivated by racist hatred.


Los Angeles has not endured that kind of catastrophic event recently, but the city is no stranger to gun violence. An increase in firearms use since the onset of the pandemic helped drive Los Angeles to 397 murders last year, the highest total since 2007. Police Chief Michel Moore frequently warns of a rise in armed robberies across the city.


More gun crime has resulted in something else: Record seizures by the Los Angeles Police Department. The LAPD in 2021 recovered 8,661 illegal firearms, according to an annual department report. That marked a 32.5% increase from the previous year, and the highest total in at least 15 years.


Annual firearms recoveries by LAPD, 2012-2021

Horizontal bar chart of annual gun seizures, including ghost guns


The rise in recoveries comes with its own twist: Police are more frequently finding ghost guns—unregistered, self-made firearms, sometimes manufactured on 3D printers, that are virtually untraceable. 


The LAPD seized 1,921 ghost guns last year, or 22% of the total recovered, according to the annual report. 


Firearms recoveries in 2021

Pie chart of traditional and ghost gun seizures in Los Angeles in 2021


Through June 4 this year, 754 ghost guns were taken off the streets, Moore told the civilian Los Angeles Police Commission at its June 14 meeting. That represented 21% of the 3,556 total guns recovered this year. The figure is in line with the same timeframe in 2021, when 752 of the 3,676 weapons seized were ghost guns, Moore said.


In all of 2020, the department recovered 813 ghost guns out of 6,536 firearms seized. Moore warned of the dangers that come with such weapons.  


“These are instruments of death,” Moore said at the Commission meeting. “The only people that are getting these handguns and assault weapons are people who are using them against other individuals and creating the violence that we’re seeing. They’re not being used for any legitimate purpose.”


A national crisis

Ghost guns can be manufactured in multiple ways. A build-it-yourself kit can be purchased online and a weapon can be fashioned in less than two hours, according to law enforcement agencies. People can also download files and make an unregistered gun on a 3D printer. 


Los Angeles is not alone in seeing more crimes committed with ghost guns. There have been steep increases in major metropolitan areas including New York City, Baltimore, Chicago and San Francisco.


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Last year, around 20,000 suspected ghost guns were recovered and reported to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, according to the White House. That is 10 times the number of ghost guns reported to the bureau in 2016. 


In April, President Joe Biden announced new rules for the regulation of ghost guns. They seek to require manufacturers to become federally licensed, and run background checks on buyers prior to sales.  


Moore has been trying to have District Attorney George Gascon utilize stiff enhancements when prosecuting people for crimes that involve firearms. The department is also hiking up efforts to investigate ghost gun manufacturers. 


Still, the chief recognizes that only so much ground can be gained. 


“It won’t stop the entire flood,” Moore said during the Police Commission meeting. “Eight out of 10 guns are still guns that are possessed by people stealing them or buying them, and unfortunately resorting to their use in some crime of violence.”


Last November, the City Council banned buying, selling or owning ghost guns unless the parts are imprinted with serial numbers. Additionally, the city moved to sue Polymer80, an online company that, according to court documents, supplied nearly 90% of the ghost guns recovered by the LAPD in 2021. In 2019, a 16-year-old used Polymer80 parts in a deadly shooting at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita.


Shots in Downtown

In 2021, there were 9,131 crimes committed with firearms in the city, according to LAPD data. That was nearly 17% more than the previous high in 2020. 


The trend is continuing this year. From Jan. 1–June 15, there were 4,605 crimes committed with guns, nearly 20% above the total in the same time period last year.


In that timeframe there were 316 gun crimes in Downtown, more than any other neighborhood in Los Angeles. The community with the second highest number of incidents was Vermont-Slauson (197 crimes).


Neighborhoods with most gun crimes, Jan. 1–June 15, 2022

Bar chart of communities with most gun crimes


LAPD Det. Benjamin Meda said self-made pistols make up the greatest portion of ghost guns. Pistols, although not necessarily ghost guns, have been utilized in 998 crimes committed so far this year. At this point in 2021, 690 crimes with a pistol had been reported.


How we did it: We examined publicly available crime data from the Los Angeles Police Department from Jan. 1, 2021-June 15, 2022, as well as the 2021 LAPD Crimes and Initiatives report. For neighborhood boundaries, we rely on the borders defined by the Los Angeles Times. Learn more about our data here.


LAPD data only reflects crimes that are reported to the department, not how many crimes actually occurred. In making our calculations, we rely on the data the LAPD makes publicly available. The LAPD periodically updates past crime reports with new information, leading the department to recategorize past reports. Revised reports do not always automatically become part of the public database.


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