SAN DIEGO – A three-month campaign aimed at reducing violent crime in San Diego County has yielded significant results, with law enforcement officials announcing the seizure of 165 firearms, including 82 "ghost guns," and the prosecution of 29 individuals.
The Privately Made Firearm Crime Reduction Project, which ran from February to May, targeted gun violence and the proliferation of ghost guns in San Diego. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the San Diego Police Department employed data analytics to identify areas experiencing a rise in gun violence and the recovery of crime guns. Utilizing an intelligence-led policing approach, they strategically allocated resources to have the greatest impact.
Throughout the 90-day initiative, law enforcement personnel conducted nearly 88 operations, employing undercover techniques, surveillance, social media monitoring, and the use of confidential informants and undercover agents. These efforts were dedicated to removing firearms from the hands of criminals and enhancing community safety. Undercover operations, search warrants, and arrest warrants were executed to primarily target individuals involved in the illegal possession, manufacture, and sale of firearms, particularly ghost guns without serial numbers or identifying marks.
During a recent news conference, authorities revealed the outcomes of the operation, showcasing 81 firearms seized, including machine guns, Glock Switches, short-barrel rifles, pistols, and silencers. Notably, a significant number of the seized weapons were fully automatic. Alongside the firearms, investigators also recovered approximately 66 pounds of methamphetamine, 1.4 kilograms of powder fentanyl, 4,300 fentanyl pills, and 2.25 kilograms of cocaine.
Currently, 22 defendants face federal charges, while an additional seven are facing state charges related to various gun and drug crimes. The federal charges include Dealing in Firearms without a License, Possession of a Machine Gun, Felon in Possession of a Firearm, Assault of a Federal Agent, Possession of a Firearm in Furtherance of a Violent Crime, and Possession of a Firearm in Furtherance of Drug Trafficking. Drug charges involve the distribution of fentanyl, methamphetamine, and cocaine.
The increase in ghost guns is a growing concern, with approximately 20,000 suspected ghost guns reported to the ATF as recovered in criminal investigations last year alone, marking a ten-fold increase since 2016. Due to the absence of serial numbers, tracing these weapons back to their purchasers is an arduous task for law enforcement.
At the local level, the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) has received a federal grant from the Department of Justice to enhance tracking of firearm-related crimes across the region. This effort includes monitoring firearm-involved crimes, tracking calls related to firearms, and conducting interviews with arrestees about their use of firearms and ghost guns.
According to SANDAG, the recovery of ghost guns by local law enforcement agencies in San Diego County has surged by 401 percent from 2019 to 2021. In the city of San Diego, approximately one-quarter of the firearms recovered at crime scenes and during investigations in 2021 were privately manufactured and lacked serial numbers.
Although preliminary numbers suggest a decrease in ghost gun seizures in 2022, the overall rate remains significantly higher than in previous years.
U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman emphasized the operation's success in enhancing public safety, stating, "Every illegal gun that is removed from criminal hands makes us safer, and for that reason, this operation was a tremendous success." Grossman expressed gratitude towards the prosecution team and commended the dedication and bravery of ATF agents and San Diego Police Department officers involved in the operation.
ATF Los Angeles Field Division Special Agent in Charge Christopher Bombardiere highlighted the significance of the Privately Made Firearms Crime Reduction Project, emphasizing its focus on targeting violent individuals engaged in the unlawful manufacture and sale of powerful firearms without a license. He underscored the impact of the initiative, which led to the seizure of 165 firearms, including approximately half being privately made firearms and one-third being unregistered National Firearms Act (NFA) weapons such as machine guns, machine gun conversion devices, short-barreled rifles, and silencers.
San Diego Police Department Chief David Nisleit reaffirmed the department's commitment to combatting the proliferation of drugs and firearms in local communities. He praised the collaborative efforts and effectiveness of the operation in removing drugs, firearms, and criminals from the streets.
In 2021, the San Diego Police Department established the Ghost Gun Apprehension Team, one of the first units of its kind in the nation, to investigate unlawful ghost gun manufacturing and sales cases. The team assists patrol officers, detectives, and specialized units when encountering ghost guns during arrests or investigations.
San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan emphasized the continued commitment to working with state and federal partners to conduct targeted operations that enhance neighborhood safety. The operation not only resulted in the seizure of illegal guns but also prevented the distribution of dangerous drugs and potential fatal overdoses.
The operation highlighted several notable cases, including the illegal sale of ghost guns by an active-duty U.S. Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton, the sale of fentanyl pills and guns by a convicted robber, and an assault on a federal agent during an undercover operation involving the purchase of a machine gun.
The defendants facing charges are presumed innocent until proven guilty, and the charges and allegations contained in the indictment or complaint are merely accusations.
The successful campaign demonstrates law enforcement's commitment to addressing violent crime, reducing the presence of ghost guns, and enhancing community safety in San Diego County.