Ghost guns — a term often used to describe homemade, untraceable guns — have caught the attention of Johnson County authorities after such weapons were allegedly used in two separate shootings here in recent weeks that resulted in three deaths and three injuries.
Officials in other states, most notably California, have been scrambling in recent months to respond to a surge in use of the do-it-yourself weapons, which have been linked to everything from gang killings to accidental shootings at home.
Now, ghost guns may be tied to two high-profile shootings in Johnson County, including last Friday’s shooting at Olathe East High School.
Three persons — a student, school resource officer and assistant principal —were injured in that incident, which took place about 10:30 a.m. Friday inside the school’s main office.
It was the second shooting in less than a week that likely involved such a ghost gun.
Law enforcement officials also believe a ghost gun was used in a suspected double murder-suicide in a Lenexa home on Sunday, Feb. 27, that resulted in three deaths, including that of a 2020 graduate of Shawnee Mission West High School.
What are ghost guns?
Ghost guns can be produced on 3D printers or ordered as separate components online and assembled later.
They are becoming a scourge in some big cities, particularly in California, according to the New York Times.
Their online sales and lack of serial numbers makes them much harder to trace, authorities say.
Until this month, they’d been all but unknown in Johnson County.
Beyond the two recent shootings, Sheriff Calvin Hayden said he could not think of an instance where his officers had encountered that type of weapon.
But that doesn’t make it any less concerning, he said.
“It’s super rare when that happens but usually when it does happen there’s a criminal intent behind it,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “These ghost guns are worrisome for law enforcement.”
Ghost guns made from kits or printed with a 3D printer have proved to be an easier access point for people who might otherwise not be allowed to own firearms.
Criminals trying to keep their guns untraceable have in the past filed off serial numbers.
Hayden stressed that the county crime lab and a national database still are good methods of tracing where a weapon has been and how it’s been used, even without a serial number.
“Whether we have the firearm or not we can trace where the gun has been used and that eventually ends up in arrest – with a lot of work,” he said. And it’s still possible to trace the fired ammunition to the ghost gun it was shot from, he said.
Still, ghost guns “haven’t been one of our major issues. Most firearms we encounter have serial numbers on them,” he added.
Two recent shootings
The guns are believed to have been used in two incidents that shook Johnson County in recent weeks.
In the school shooting, officials charged student Jaylon Elmore, 18, with attempted capital murder.
Elmore, who remains in critical condition, exchanged gunfire with school resource officer Erik Clark, police said.
Clark and Olathe East’s assistant principal and athletic director Kaleb Stoppel were treated and released for their injuries, and a separate investigation by the county’s Officer Involved Shooting Investigation Team is ongoing.
In the Lenexa shooting, police believe Dustin Johnson, 37, of Belton, went to the home, where he shot and killed both of John Williamson, 20, of Lenexa, and Sara Beck, 22, of Belton, before killing himself.
It was the first homicide in Lenexa since 2014, although there was a fatal police shooting incident last year.
Time for change in gun laws?
Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe said the trend toward ghost guns across the country poses a danger that needs to be addressed.
Howe said the gun used in the Olathe shooting was probably assembled from a kit.
The guns have been seen before in the county, he said, and backed up assertions made by other law enforcement officials around the country that they are typically used by gangs and organized crime to circumvent laws that would prevent certain people from buying firearms.
“It’s a growing problem across this country and one that I think Congress needs to examine whether or not there needs to be restrictions placed on it,” Howe said.
Companies selling kits should have to comply with the same regulations as major gun manufacturers, Howe said, and that includes putting on serial numbers.
He said federal lawmakers should also look at the online sales rules, though he did not have a specific remedy in mind.
“I think it’s worthy of Congress’s time to examine this and figure out if there are things that we could do to prevent the illicit sales of some of these guns to individuals who are committing violence in our community.”
Sheriff Hayden said the problem hasn’t reached a breaking point in the county yet. But he said he might support restrictions on them if they become a bigger problem.
“We’ve got to catch up with the technology and if ghost guns are becoming a problem, sure, we need to figure out a way to prevent that from happening,” he said. “I think at this point we haven’t seen it at a crisis level. It’s kind of like we can create every gun law in the world but criminals find a way around it. That’s the world we deal with.”
Kansas state Sen. Cindy Holscher, a Democrat from Overland Park whose son attends Olathe East, said she didn’t know of any Kansas bills in the works regarding ghost guns, though she has introduced other legislation that would introduce criminal penalties for improperly storing firearms.
She said something needs to be done on ghost guns, given their use in the recent shootings.