PROVIDENCE, RI (WPRI) – Miya Brophy-Baermann was talking to her friend a year ago on Olney Street in Providence when gunfire erupted from a passing car and ended her life at 24 .
Last month, a grand jury charged two men with her murder. Investigators said the weapon used in his death was a ghost gun, an elusive firearm that has become increasingly popular in recent years, particularly among Rhode Island criminals.
“They’re here and they’re being used by bad guys to hurt others,” RI Attorney General Peter Neronha told Target 12.
Ghost guns — essentially defined as a firearm without a serial number — have been illegal in Rhode Island since 2020. At the time, lawmakers scrambled to put a law on the books to help regulate the weapon, that police found linked to a local gun and growing gang violence.
“Ghost weapons are a growing public safety issue in the community and for our officers,” Providence Police Col. Hugh Clements said in an interview with Target 12, standing in front of several tables filled with dozens of ghost weapons that his officers had seizures over the past two years.
A Target 12 review of court data between 2020 and this summer shows that 59 people have been charged with a total of 72 criminal offenses involving ghost weapons. And Neronha and Clements agree they’ve just scratched the surface, as the guns are still relatively new compared to more traditional firearms with serial numbers.
“It’s a drop in the bucket,” Neronha said. “We only see part of what’s really going on because we only catch the bad guys a certain percentage of the time.”
Illegal guns still represent a minority of all firearms taken off the streets, but Neronha said ghost guns have become increasingly popular due to the ease with which they have been purchased online in the past. Court records reviewed by Target 12 show that the vast majority of firearms are ordered in part through a Nevada-based company called Polymer80.
“Polymer80 makes the vast majority of the kits we find here,” he said. “There’s just no doubt about it.”
Until a new federal rule went into effect last month, almost anyone with a credit card and a home address could go to the company’s website and buy a kit. firearms 80% complete including parts without serial numbers. The kits require additional home assembly work, but Neronha says the process is relatively straightforward as templates, end caps and easy-to-follow instructions come with purchase.
“It couldn’t be simpler,” he said.
Because the parts are sold as part of a kit – rather than being fully assembled – the unassembled weapon for years was not technically considered a firearm. Neronha said the loophole allowed Polymer80 and other online gun kit companies to bypass background checks and other rules traditional gun retailers must follow, such as asking for proof. a handgun safety certification, also known as a “blue card”, in Rhode Island.
The attorney general argued that the dynamic has made online kits particularly attractive to people who want to get their hands on firearms but wouldn’t pass background checks.
“It shouldn’t be surprising that we find them in the hands of people involved in violent crimes in Providence and beyond,” he said.
Polymer80 did not respond to a request for comment.
Clements echoed Neronha, saying that while there are likely plenty of law-abiding gun owners in Providence who might be interested in home kits from a hobbyist’s perspective, he’s worried about how often his officers find the weapons linked to crimes.
“They are convicted felons – they use them in crimes,” he explained. “They are gang members.”
One of his officers, Robert Savage, experienced the problem firsthand last year when he responded to a report of a domestic violence dispute at a home on Canton Street in Providence. Once Savage arrived, police said he was immediately greeted by a volley of gunfire from an AR-15 rifle fired by Luis Roman.
“The suspect fired nine bullets at the vehicle, including two that were within inches of where his head would be behind the windshield,” Clements said, explaining that officers later arrested Roman and discovered that the rifle AR-15 was a ghost gun. Roman has pleaded not guilty to several crimes and has a court hearing scheduled for next month.
“We were extremely lucky on that one,” Clements said.
Roman isn’t alone, as phantom guns are popping up with increasing frequency in criminal cases and court hearings across the state. For example, in January, federal investigators arrested and charged Robert Alcantra, accusing the Providence man of transporting firearm parts from Pennsylvania to Rhode Island, where they found a ‘ghost weapons’ in his apartment.
In July, Nicholas Daly of North Kingstown took no issue with making ghost weapons using a 3D printer inside his home. He was charged with then taking the firearms to work and displaying them.
Last month, Jerardy Cruz was sentenced to five years in prison after pleading no contest to possessing and making a ghost weapon. Police issued a warrant to his home in Providence last year and said they found him making a ghost gun using a hand-held drill. Police said they seized a Polymer80 9mm pistol and seven ghost pistol kits from the same company.
Late Sunday evening, Providence police responded to a scuffle outside a nightclub on Broad Street where officers said they seized a Polymer80 ghost gun “with a green top slide with nothing in the chamber and 15 live 9mm bullets in a black magazine that was inserted well into the magazine,” according to a police report.
Federal regulators earlier this year created a new rule which came into effect last month and will now require all home-made weapons to have serial numbers. All buyers must go through a background check, as per the rule.
Proponents hope the new rule will stem the proliferation of ghost guns in the hands of criminals, but Neronha fears it’s only a matter of time before gun companies find a new way to flood the world. bargain with something else to further complicate the law enforcement jobs.
“The ingenuity of the gun industry is remarkable, and I don’t mean remarkable in a positive way,” Neronha said. “What we’re going to have to be is really vigilant about what the next program is.”