Santa Barbara County law enforcement talks to News-Press about incidents, statistics
In the aftermath of the mass shooting in Sacramento earlier this month, calls to further regulate or ban ghost guns rang out.
It begged the question: Are ghost guns a problem in Santa Barbara County?
But the answer to that, much like the nickname of the homemade firearms suggests, is a bit elusive.
“Ghost guns” is the moniker used to describe firearms typically made by kits or parts that do not include serial numbers — making them virtually untraceable.
Parts can be bought online, often from multiple vendors, or made from 3D printers. The effort can cost as little as a few hundred dollars and take less than 30 minutes to assemble just like a puzzle.
“Ghost guns are an issue all across the nation. They’ve become a real problem for law enforcement and our communities,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told the News-Press in an interview.
“Ghost guns are absolutely prevalent in Santa Barbara,” Sgt. Ethan Ragsdale, a spokesperson for the Santa Barbara Police Department, echoed.
Following the mass shooting in Sacramento, just steps from the state Capitol, the Biden administration implemented a new rule banning “buy build shoot” kits people could purchase without a background check and easily assemble into a firearm. The rule said these weapons must be licensed and serialized.
Additionally, the rule mandated federally licensed dealers and gunsmiths to serialize any weapons they have that do not have a serial number.
The Sacramento shooting, which police have said was a gunfight among multiple shooters from rival gangs, left six people dead.
Police had said at least one gun recovered from the mass shooting was stolen and converted to being capable of automatic gunfire. Earlier this year, a man reportedly used a ghost gun when he fatally shot his three children, a chaperone and himself in a Sacramento church.
Because they are untraceable, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how many ghost guns have been recovered by law enforcement — when they were used in a crime or assembled and discovered on a person prohibited from possessing a firearm — in Santa Barbara.
“We have taken ghost guns off the street and away from people, and in many of these instances, who’s to say whether they would have been used in a violent crime had they not been taken away by law enforcement,” Sheriff Brown said.
The Sheriff’s Office — with a jurisdiction that covers unincorporated Santa Barbara County as well as Buellton, Carpinteria, Goleta and Solvang — booked 22 ghost guns in 2021. So far in 2022, the Sheriff’s Office has collected 13.
In 2021, there were 27 violent crimes (four homicides, 11 robberies and 12 aggravated assaults in which firearms were used). Of the firearms recovered, no ghost guns were found, Sheriff Brown said.
Throughout January and February this year (the only data available), there has been one homicide, but a ghost gun was not used, Sheriff Brown said. There has also been an aggravated assault in which a firearm was used, but that incident is still under investigation.
“We want to make sure … there’s some mechanism for us to be able to trace (ghost guns) if they’re used in a crime and not be able to circumvent the existing laws that relate to firearms and the transfer of firearms between people,” Sheriff Brown.
Sgt. Ragsdale said there has been an “exorbitant increase in firearms that have been taken off the streets while making arrests” since January 2021 — including ghost guns.
“The people who are buying these ghost guns are people who cannot purchase a gun legally, and that’s what is scary,” Sgt. Ragsdale told the News-Press. “It neglects the reasons why we have these checks and balances and regulations in place.”
Figures from both the city and county law enforcement agencies line up with data gathered from an assessment of district attorneys by Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley. She told the News-Press her team reported ghost guns had been used in 39 instances over the past 16 months — that they knew of.
The White House said 20,000 suspected ghost guns were reported to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as having been recovered by law enforcement in criminal investigations last year — a 10-fold increase from 2016.
Ghost guns have been used in several school shootings, including at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita in 2019. A gun manufactured by parts without a serial number was used in the 2013 mass shooting on and near Santa Monica College’s campus.
But the Sacramento tragedy also underscored another issue: How ubiquitous is gang violence in Santa Barbara?
Like with ghost guns, some ambiguity exists — in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which stifled the number of cases filed in recent years.
“We certainly do see gang-related crime and gang-related problems across the county,” Sheriff Brown said, noting most are centered around the larger cities within the county.
Last month, Santa Maria police said it received a report of a shooting and determined a pregnant woman had been struck by gunfire while traveling in a vehicle with her husband. Police arrested an 18-year-old man in connection to the shooting, which officials said was “an exchange of gunfire between rival gangs.”
Both the woman and her unborn child, fortunately, were expected to survive; the family was not a part of the gang activity, police said.
And more recently, a Santa Maria jury found five men connected to MS-13 guilty of gang-related charges, including murder. MS-13 is a Salvadoran-American gang that originated in Los Angeles and was often
referenced by former President Donald Trump.
Violent crime in the city of Santa Barbara is down, Sgt. Ragsdale said. However, there have been some instances of late involving potential gang members. As of March 1, Ms. Dudley’s office had 106 open gang cases from 2020, 116 from 2021 and 95 for 2022. She said 2019 was the highest year for filing these cases.