Oregon law enforcement, ATF see increase in use of 'ghost guns'

·9 min read
Tyler Harnden is accused of operating the largest ghost gun manufacturer in Oregon after federal investigators discovered dozens of homemade firearms and components at his residence Salem residence.
Tyler Harnden is accused of operating the largest ghost gun manufacturer in Oregon after federal investigators discovered dozens of homemade firearms and components at his residence Salem residence.

Federal investigators had reason to suspect a 29-year-old Salem man was illegally manufacturing guns and distributing counterfeit pills made of fentanyl in exchange for more guns.

But when investigators served a search warrant in February at Tyler Ray Harnden's Salem home, they didn't know they would be stumbling upon Oregon's largest known "ghost gun" manufacturing workshop.

Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), along with Salem Police Department detectives, recovered dozens of homemade firearms and firearm parts in various stages of completion where Harnden lived in the basement of his mother's home, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office, District of Oregon. Law enforcement found another 63 firearms belonging to Harnden at his relative's home in a separate raid.

Harnden was indicted by a grand jury last week on multiple drug trafficking and firearm possession charges, court records show. Harnden cannot legally possess a firearm because he is a convicted felon. Officials say he faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted of the latest charges.

This case may be the largest in the state, but police detectives said they've seen an "exponentially" increasing number of privately made firearms (PMFs) — ATF language for ghost guns — seized in police operations in recent months.

Exactly how many is difficult to say, since the department does not track whether a gun recovered during an investigation is a ghost gun — they're simply logged into evidence as a "gun," according to Lt. Debbie Aguilar, a spokesperson with the Salem Police Department.

Nationally, ATF officials said the number of ghost guns appearing in investigations and crime scenes across the nation has risen steadily over the past several years.

What is a ghost gun?

A ghost gun, also called a "kit gun," is an unserialized, homemade firearm built from parts that are widely available for purchase without a background check.

Nearly 24,000 suspected ghost guns were recovered by law enforcement from potential crime scenes from Jan. 1, 2016 through Dec. 31, 2020 and reported to the ATF from law enforcement agencies across the nation, according to the ATF Office of Strategic Intelligence and Information. This includes ghost guns recovered from 325 homicides or attempted homicides.

Related: Cities sue 'ghost gun' parts manufacturers as homemade firearms are tied to more crimes

ATF officials caution the public to be wary of the data; the numbers are likely far lower than the actual number of privately made firearms recovered from crime scenes because some law enforcement departments incorrectly trace some PMFs as commercially manufactured firearms, or may not see a need to use their resources to trace firearms without a serial number or other identifiable markings.

ATF public information officer Jason Chudy told the Statesman Journal the agency doesn't require law enforcement departments to report the number of suspected ghost guns recovered in investigations.

But some municipalities have done their own tracking — and the data shows the numbers are on the rise. In 2019, 6% of the firearms recovered by the San Francisco Police Department in connection with homicides were ghost guns. Last year it topped 44%, according to the lawsuit filed by the city district attorney's office.

In New York County, they have doubled in the last two to three years, said Cyrus Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney in New York City and a co-founder of Prosecutors Against Gun Violence. Last year, the New York City Police Department recovered 225 ghost guns through Dec. 3, surpassing 2020's total of 145. In 2019, officers recovered just 48.

The Salem Police Department said their evidence data does not currently have any "separate provision" for entering a privately made firearm, so it's hard to get numbers. Aguilar said the intent is to update their evidence system with a PMF category.

The department did say it entered 64 guns without a serial number into evidence last calendar year, according to Aguilar. This number reflects guns where the serial numbers were removed, didn't have one due to age, or where the numbers were illegible.

Already this year, Aguilar said, the police department has counted up to 30 PMFs, which includes gun parts in various states of completion. Aguilar stressed the number is a rough estimate.

Anecdotally, Salem detectives pointed to a case in early February in the Salem area where a convicted felon was manufacturing firearms "in volume" using "widely available commercial kits." The case resulted in the arrest of four individuals on drug, felon in possession of a firearm, and probation violation charges.

An unserialized, undetectable gun

Gun violence prevention advocates have been sounding the alarm on ghost guns for years. The guns' untraceable nature, they say, makes them easily acquired by criminals who otherwise would not be permitted to possess a firearm and nearly impossible for law enforcement to track.

Typically, ATF-licensed gunmakers or importers are required to engrave identification information, including a serial number, make and model, to a traditionally manufactured firearm. This law stems from the Gun Control Act of 1968, which, among other things, imposes licensing and regulations on the firearms industry.

Serial numbers are the best way for law enforcement to trace these guns to their first retail purchaser when investigating a crime, according to ATF's Chudy.

But since ghost guns are made using kits and incomplete parts of a firearm they are not required to have a serial number. Federal law allows a person to make a firearm for personal use, Chudy added, unless that individual is otherwise prohibited from possessing a firearm.

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A key component to a firearm is called a frame or "receiver," which houses the firing mechanism. Under federal law, only a frame or receiver of a firearm must carry a serial number. And anyone purchasing a receiver is subject to a background check, according to Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Advocates for gun violence prevention say ghost gun kit or component retailers undermine current firearm regulations because most ghost guns are made from “unfinished” frames or receivers; there are no federal restrictions on who can buy ghost gun kits or parts because they're not firearms.

"Unfinished frames and receivers are often marketed as “80%” complete, meaning a buyer needs to do only 20% of the work for the frame or receiver to be assembled into an operable firearm," according to a report by Everytown for Gun Safety, a national gun violence prevention organization.

Everytown says online sellers have packaged the unfinished frame or receiver with all the other parts needed to complete the firearm and include instructional videos with easy-to-follow steps. One online retailer offering rifle- and pistol-building kits announces that their jig “makes it ridiculously easy for a non-machinist to finish their 80% lower in under one hour with no drill press required," Everytown reported.

The process is not only easy — it's cheap, the organization states.

Everytown’s research found that it is possible to purchase an AR-15 build kit and a lower receiver for $345. Kits for making Glock-type pistol kits with a frame can go for as little as $400.

Some law enforcement agencies have also raised concerns about the difficulty in tracking guns during gun crimes and investigations.

Police detectives say the most significant issue for law enforcement with PMFs is in tracing the gun used in crimes as there are generally no identifying manufacturer or serial numbers applied. Existing tracing methods, they said, are not optimized for generating investigative leads, even though this is changing.

Detectives said the lack of tracing methods causes complications in training investigators and evidence technicians to properly document PMFs for entry into databases.

Nationally, President Joe Biden has previously highlighted his administration's efforts to ban ghost guns, among other efforts to address increased gun violence. In April, Biden directed the Department of Justice to propose a rule within 30 days to stop the proliferation of ghost guns.

In May, the Department of Justice issued a notice of proposed rulemaking that would update the definitions of “firearm” and related parts for the first time since 1968. The proposed rule would modernize the definition of “frame or receiver” and help close a "regulatory loophole" associated with the un-serialized privately made firearms.

Officials said the rule would:

  • Require retailers to run background checks before selling kits that contain the parts necessary for someone to readily make a gun at home.

  • Require manufacturers include a serial number on the firearm “frame or receiver” in easy-to-build firearm kits.

  • Set out requirements for federally licensed firearms dealers to have a serial number added to 3D printed guns or other un-serialized firearms they take into inventory.

Oregon's largest 'ghost gun' manufacturing workshop

Last month, ATF agents and Salem police detectives recovered dozens of homemade firearms and firearm parts in various stages of completion where Harnden lived in the basement of his mother's home in the 200 block of Owens Street S.

When searching the house, investigators also found two pistols, three completed ghost guns, thousands of rounds of ammunition, 15 loaded high-capacity magazines, three drill presses and other assorted firearm manufacturing equipment. They also found approximately 200 counterfeit oxycodone pills containing fentanyl.

Agents found multiple text messages indicating Harnden was selling both counterfeit M30 oxycodone pills manufactured with fentanyl, as well as heroin, according to court records.

Law enforcement officials arrested him Feb. 16, less than a mile away from his house, court records show.

After his arrest, officials linked Harnden to more than 50 illegal — "straw purchases" — of firearms. Federal agents allege Harnden was having people with substance abuse disorders buy guns for him, since he was prohibited from purchasing them, in exchange for counterfeit oxycodone pills manufactured with fentanyl.

Agents also learned, through a witness, text messages and recorded jail calls that Harnden had a relative storing more of his firearms and that he was trying to get her to sell some of them to generate money to put into his jail account.

Harnden was previously convicted in 2015 of felony unlawful delivery of heroin in Marion County. He was sentenced to two years in prison.

USA Today's Kevin McCoy and Ryan W. Miller contributed to this report.

Virginia Barreda is the Statesman Journal's public safety and courts reporter. She can be reached at vbarreda@statesmanjournal.com or 503-399-6657.

This article originally appeared on Salem Statesman Journal: ATF, Oregon police see increase in use of 'ghost guns'