The recent conviction of a North Beach man for manufacturing ghost guns in his apartment and selling them to drug dealers may have surprised friends and neighbors. But in fact, San Francisco is a center of the state’s exploding problem with ghost guns, according to state and federal officials.
In December, San Francisco resident Craig Bolland was sentenced to six years in federal prison after pleading guilty to illegally manufacturing and selling what have come to be known as ghost guns—homemade firearms that are hard to trace.
Federal law enforcement called Bolland “a merchant of violence, arming those who spread destruction in this city and beyond.” San Francisco police found Bolland as part of an investigation into a man who opened fire at police. On that man’s phone were communications with Bolland about illegal guns.
But his case was just one of more than a thousand instances of ghost guns that were used in crimes reported in San Francisco in recent years.
Statewide in 2022, there were 39,945 guns without serial numbers seized across more than 800 cities, according to the Attorney General’s Office.
Despite its relatively small population, San Francisco had the third-highest number of ghost guns used in crimes in 2022, with 1,132. That put it behind only Los Angeles and San Diego, cities with much larger populations. There were 4,968 ghost guns involved in crimes in Los Angeles and 1,562 in San Diego.
Ghost guns make up nearly half of the guns being used in killings in San Francisco.
“San Francisco’s police chief reported that ghost guns comprised 6% of firearms recovered in San Francisco homicide cases in 2019 but 44% in 2020,” according to the California Attorney General’s report on gun violence in 2022.
San Francisco police did not respond to a request for comment, but a number of recent arrests, as well as policy actions, make it plain city leaders are concerned.
Federal officials spoke with The Standard about the growing issue and explained what ghost guns are.
“Ghost guns have really hit mainstream media and hit the streets in the last five years,” said Jennifer Cicolani, the special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Northern California. “We saw the trend in California before anywhere else in the nation.”
These guns, she said, aim to circumvent gun laws, which govern the types of weapons that can be manufactured and their sales, and therefore are a growing threat to public safety.
“Statewide, in 2015, law enforcement officials reported recovering only 26 ghost guns in connection with criminal activity. By 2021, that number had grown to 12,388,” a report from the California Attorney General’s Office said. In 2022, nearly 40,000 were recovered.
What Are Ghost Guns?
The ATF defines a ghost gun as any gun on the market for sale that does not have identifying numbers (or that has been illegally modified) that link them to specific people. Many firearms can be made legally by a hobbyist, created with or without a 3D printer. But selling such weapons without serial numbers makes them illegal. Legal guns also can be made illegal when they are altered to fire more rapidly or with extended capacities.
“They typically call them ghost guns because there's no way to trace them. It's just any gun that we recover that doesn't have a serial number. It can use old techniques or new technology,” Cicolani said. “Most people don't understand what a ghost gun is.”
How Big of a Problem Are Ghost Guns?
According to the 2023 report from the California Attorney General, ghost guns used in crime, and their seizure by law enforcement, have skyrocketed in the past five years.
ATF officials agreed. “We are seeing a huge increase in these firearms on the street,” Cicolani said, echoing state data.
Before the upsurge, most illegal guns sold on the black market were made from parts assembled from federally legal kits that were often ordered from out of state. Many such guns were made in rural parts of the state, said ATF officials.
But in recent years it has become increasingly easier to use far cheaper technology like 3D printers to make guns at home, Cicolani’s deputy, Eric Anderson, said.
In many cases, parts of the weapons that can be made of polymer or plastics can be printed or ordered and combined with more difficult-to-create metal parts.
Cicolani said some of the increase in ghost gun seizures is the result of training local law enforcement in how to identify and report illegal guns.
What Is Being Done?
Aside from continued federal enforcement and local training to aid law enforcement in identifying ghost guns, San Francisco leaders have taken a number of steps to try to reduce the presence of these weapons on the city’s streets.
In 2021, then-District Attorney Chesa Boudin and the state of California sued gun parts manufacturers in an effort to punish companies that shipped parts into the state that helped illegal gun dealers make more weapons.
That same year, the Board of Supervisors voted to ban the guns in the city.