Baltimore Police officers chased a teenager in a stolen car in October through the leafy Loch Raven neighborhood, where they eventually caught him and found a beige handgun in a book bag: a Polymer80 with a 30-round magazine.

The week after Thanksgiving 2022, then-18-year-old Dominique Edmonds shot and killed a man in an alley in the southwest corner of the city. When police arrested him at an apartment weeks later, they found a blue gun: also a Polymer80, this one with a 15-round magazine.

Another Baltimore man, Mark Ryals, had 21 Polymer80 handguns he was hoping to sell. Authorities arrested him after he unknowingly sold several to an undercover agent in July 2021.

All three were, for either age or another disqualifying reason, prohibited from owning handguns. Yet all of them did, a testament to the pervasiveness of easy-to-obtain, virtually impossible-to-trace handguns that have become the firearm du jour in Baltimore’s illicit gun market.

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Guns made out of parts from Polymer80, one of the largest manufacturers of ghost gun parts nationwide, are the most commonly recovered firearm in the city, more than other well-known brands such as Glock and Taurus, according to a Baltimore Banner analysis of 2 1/2 years of police gun recovery data.

Known as ghost guns because they lack serial numbers, which makes them untraceable by design, the homemade weapons are being carried and used throughout Baltimore and other American cities. Police here say the guns are most commonly carried by people under 30 and the department logged more than 1,200 into evidence from June 2021 through 2023 — about 20% of all guns recovered.

Ghost guns have been recovered in every corner of the city and have been used in high-profile killings. The teenage squeegee worker who shot and killed the baseball bat-wielding Timothy Reynolds near the Inner Harbor in 2022 used a ghost gun. So did the gunman who killed Safe Streets worker Dante Barksdale in 2021.

On Wednesday, Mayor Brandon Scott announced the city had negotiated a settlement with Polymer80 that effectively ended the company’s business in Maryland. The settlement, the most stringent against the arms manufacturer yet, comes as cities around the country are filing lawsuits as a means to divert the flow of untraceable guns onto their streets.

“Our approach will have a deep impact because it’s not just about Baltimore but the entire state of Maryland, and also those connecting and surrounding states,” Scott said in an interview with The Banner. “It shows an example to other cities and jurisdictions around the country.”

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States and the federal government are getting in on the action, too. Maryland banned the sale of firearms without a serial number in 2022. President Joe Biden that same year ordered the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to adopt a rule that would stop the sale of receivers or frames, the main part of a gun, without a serial number by classifying them as firearms under the law. Several challenges to that rule are working through the courts, and it’s likely the U.S. Supreme Court will hear them.

In the calendar year before Maryland’s ban took effect, the Baltimore Police Department recovered 402 ghost guns. Since the ban took effect in June 2022, Baltimore Police have recovered 596 ghost guns. The Banner’s analysis defined a ghost gun as any gun that police listed as unserialized in their records.

Guns made with Polymer80 parts were the most commonly recovered firearms in five of the city’s nine police districts. In the remaining four, they were second only to Glock.

A department spokesperson said police have recovered more of the unserialized weapons this year than through the same period last year.

For pro-gun advocates, talk of banning ghost guns, or really any gun control measure, is construed as a limit on law-abiding citizens’ Second Amendment rights that does little to address the perpetrators of gun violence.

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Mark Pennak, a former U.S. Department of Justice attorney, is president of Maryland Shall Issue, a nonprofit group working to preserve and advance gun owners’ rights in Maryland, according to its website. Pennak scoffed at the idea Maryland’s ghost gun ban would have an impact.

“People who buy these and have them are the very people who can’t acquire firearms legally,” he said. “Of course they’re not going to obey the law. Why would anyone ever think to the contrary?”

The mayor disagrees. Ghost gun legislation, Scott said, has nothing to do with the Second Amendment and everything to do with saving people’s lives.

“Teenagers shouldn’t be able to go on a website with a credit card and be able to buy three parts to make a gun,” Scott said. “That is not someone’s right to bear arms; that is companies and organizations purposefully going around existing regulations on firearms to put guns in the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.”

Ghost guns made their first appearances on Baltimore streets years ago but were rarities. Police recovered fewer than 10 in 2018.

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“We started to see them kind of trickling in, and then, all of a sudden, it was like a big boom of them,” said Lt. Col. John Herzog, BPD’s deputy chief of patrol.

“Once the word kind of got out about how easy it was, I think people kind of preyed upon that. [They] ordered them in bulk, were able to put them together, sell them. It’s very, very lucrative to be able to buy these at a low cost and sell them at a high price.”

Polymer80 used to sell a Buy, Build, Shoot kit for less than $600. It included all the parts needed to make a knockoff Glock but without the hassle of having to show an ID, undergo a background check or have a handgun license from the Maryland State Police.

Ryals, the man who sold Polymer80 handguns to undercover officers, sold two handguns and a silencer for $2,250, according to his plea agreement.

In addition to being untraceable, the ghost guns police recover tend to have larger-capacity magazines compared to their serialized counterparts, The Banner’s analysis found. Maryland banned the sale of magazines that hold more than 10 bullets in 2013, but the average ghost gun recovered in Baltimore has a capacity of 16 rounds.

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The reason ghost guns and high-capacity magazines are a recurring pair, according to one expert, is that people using them have one goal in mind: violence.

“When you choose which gun you’re going to use to shoot at your adversary, you choose a ghost gun because it’s unserialized and you choose a high-capacity magazine because you have more chances to hit your target,” said Nick Suplina, a senior vice president at the anti-gun-violence nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety.

“Ghost guns carried with a high-capacity magazine are a deadly combination, period,” he added.

Maryland banned the sale of high-capacity magazines, but some people have 3D-printed their own — the internet is full of forums on how people can 3D-print gun parts and accessories, all for a low price.

The process, according to one article, is fairly straightforward: Purchase a printer, oftentimes for less than $500, order some filament, find the files with the schematics and hit print.

And it’s happening in Baltimore.

Authorities say Kevin Wallace was 3D printing guns en masse at a rowhome on the city's east side. When a SWAT team raided the home in December 2022, they found a Christmas tree with unfinished handguns hung as ornaments.
Authorities say Kevin Wallace was 3D printing guns en masse at a rowhome on the city's east side. When a SWAT team raided the home in December 2022, they found a Christmas tree with unfinished handguns hung as ornaments. (Courtesy of the Baltimore Police)

Before daybreak on Dec. 29, 2022, a BPD SWAT team raided a McElderry Park rowhome after seeing social media posts from Kevin Wallace about the guns he was building. With several disqualifying convictions on his record, Wallace could not legally own firearms.

Inside his home, officers found more than two dozen unfinished 3D-printed handguns, including some hung as ornaments on a Christmas tree, along with the equipment to make more. The parts were in all sorts of colors, with court records noting frames and receivers in pink, green, gray, tan and “Tiffany blue.” Officers also found 3D-printed accessories, including a high-capacity “drum magazine,” a magazine that looks like it should be attached to a Tommy gun.

Originally, Wallace was charged in state court with a host of gun crimes. His case was transferred to federal court, where the sole charge he faces is possession of ammunition by a prohibited person. Baltimore Police now track whether a firearm officers recovered was 3D-printed.

Calling it a “national issue,” Scott said Congress should act to ban all 3D-printed weapons but conceded the issue won’t come for a vote because of a few “cowards” who are beholden to the gun lobby.

“They have to stop getting into these idiotic fights around whether you support people’s right to own a gun or not,” Scott said. “This isn’t about that. No one should be able to print a gun at home and do whatever they want with it. This is basic common sense.”

Baltimore Police found Wallace’s gun-building operation because he posted it on social media, but most people hear about illegal gun builders through word of mouth, akin to the illegal drug market.

Some of the in-progress 3D-printed firearms police recovered from a rowhome in East Baltimore in December 2022. (courtesy of the Baltimore Police)

Busts like Wallace’s are rare, Herzog said, because police usually have to rely on informants or tipsters to provide the information. When police start recovering multiple ghost guns from the same area, it’s typically a clue that something larger might be going on, if they can prove it.

“Those cases are very, very few and far between just because they are so, so difficult,” Herzog said.

As more and more city guns are tied to nontraditional sources, a solution — albeit one facing significant political headwinds — would be for prosecutors to start cutting deals with gun possessors to find the suppliers, said Daniel Webster, a Johns Hopkins professor and gun-violence researcher.

“This is where the rubber meets the road,” Webster said. “You need some leverage to get people to get you information about where the gun came from.”

Pennak, of Maryland Shall Issue, said the solution to gun violence is simple: make more arrests and lock people up longer.

“Word gets out on the street that, if you carry a firearm illegally and you’re going to get hard time, that’ll take care of it,” he said.

Illegal possession of a gun by a person without a felony who is 21 or older is a misdemeanor and carries a maximum sentence of five years.

The idea of stronger sentences for other gun crimes is a possible deterrent for arms trafficking, Webster said. As it stands now, Baltimore and most American cities police guns the same way drugs were policed for decades, with enforcement and policies geared toward possession. When that wasn’t working, focus shifted toward the drug supply chain. Webster said a similar shift in focus is needed for gun trafficking.

“This has something to do with politics and race,” he said. “The firearms industry has a powerful lobby; the people who are making money are predominantly white. Do the flip side. We don’t have a lobby for heroin, and more commonly than not the suppliers are Black or brown. We’ve made choices that are political, and public safety is not the driver of these decisions.”

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