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When Brian Muhammad, a program manager at a gun violence prevention group in California, asked a 16-year-old boy in 2018 how young people were getting guns, he assumed the answer would be Nevada, the neighboring state with looser gun laws.

“Who would waste time going to Nevada when you can just get them in the mail and put it together?” the Stockton teen nonchalantly replied.

Three years later, homemade weapons known as “ghost guns” have risen to the top of the Biden administration’s policy agenda. When Joe Biden announced executive actions targeting gun violence after the mass shootings in Georgia, California and Colorado, they included steps to regulate the sale of the devices – the first time the federal government took up such efforts.

Warnings about do-it-yourself guns have steadily grown in recent years, spurred by ominous news stories describing the weapons’ use in a slew of mass shootings, domestic terrorism cases and gun trafficking busts. In California alone, homemade guns were used in a 2013 mass shooting in Santa Monica, a 2014 bank robbery in Stockton and a shooting spree in rural Tehama county that killed six in 2017. In 2019, a 16 year old killed two students and injured three others before killing himself with a ghost gun at a school in Santa Clarita. The next year, as protests over police violence filled city streets, Steven Carrillo used a homemade machine gun to shoot two security guards at a federal building in Oakland and a sheriff’s deputy in an ambush in Santa Cruz.

But as the role of ghost guns in high profile criminal cases has grown, community violence reduction workers warn of the less visible toll ghost guns are taking : ghost guns, they say, have become a hot commodity in many vulnerable communities, a trend that has only intensified during the pandemic.

The ease with which these guns can be ordered and constructed, their low cost and the difficulties in tracing them have made them readily available in many California cities, the organizers say. Their rapid spread, combined with Covid-19 limitations to the in-person contact so many violence interrupters rely on, have created a dangerous combination that is contributing to the surge in gun deaths that began last year.

“We have people buying guns on the street at a faster pace. We can’t keep up with the number of guns especially when they may be more accessible than social services for some,” said Muhammad, of the Advance Peace program, a gun violence prevention organization

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