PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Miya Brophy-Baermann was talking to her friend a year ago on Olney Street in Providence when gunfire opened up from a passing car and ended her life at 24 years old.
Last month, a grand jury charged two men with her murder. Investigators said the weapon used in her death was a ghost gun, an untraceable firearm that’s become increasingly popular in recent years – especially among Rhode Island criminals.
“They’re here and they are being used by bad guys to hurt others,” R.I. 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, which police were finding tied to local gun and gang violence at a growing clip.
“Ghost guns are an increasing 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 multiple tables filled with dozens of ghost guns his officers had seized over the past two years.
A Target 12 review of court data between 2020 and this summer shows 59 people had been charged with a combined 72 ghost gun criminal offenses. And Neronha and Clements agree that they have just scratched the surface, as the weapons are still relatively new compared to more traditional firearms with serial numbers.
“It’s a drop in the bucket,” Neronha said. “We see only a slice of what’s really going on out there because we only catch the bad guys a certain percentage of the time.”
The illegal weapons still make up a minority of all firearms getting pulled off the street, but Neronha said ghost guns have become increasingly popular because of how easy they have been in the past to purchase online. Court records reviewed by Target 12 show the vast majority of the firearms are ordered in parts through a Nevada-based company called Polymer80.
“Polymer80 is making the vast majority of the kits we are finding here,” he said. “There is just no question about it.”
Until a new federal rule went into effect last month, nearly anyone with a credit card and a home address could go onto the company’s website and purchase an 80% completed gun kit comprising parts without serial numbers. The kits require some extra at-home assembly work, but Neronha argues the process is made relatively straightforward because jigs, bits and easy-to-follow instructions come with the purchase.
“It couldn’t be simpler,” he said.
Because the parts are sold as part of a kit – rather than fully put together – the unassembled weapon for years wasn’t technically considered a firearm. Neronha said the loophole allowed Polymer80 and other online gun kit companies to skirt background checks and other rules traditional gun retailers must follow, such as requesting proof of a handgun safety certification, also known as a “blue card,” in Rhode Island.
The attorney general argued the dynamic has made the online kits especially attractive to people who want to get their hands on guns but would fail to pass background checks.
“It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we find them in the hands of people involved in violent crime in Providence and beyond,” he said.
Polymer80 did not respond to a request for comment.
Clements echoed Neronha, saying that while there are likely many law-abiding gun owners in Providence who might be interested in the at-home kits from a hobbyist’s perspective, he’s concerned how often his officers are finding the weapons tied to crimes.
“They’re convicted felons – they use them in crimes,” he explained. “They’re gang members.”
One of his officers, Robert Savage, experienced the issue firsthand last year when he responded to a report of a domestic violence dispute at a Canton Street home in Providence. Once Savage arrived, police said he was immediately met with a volley of gunfire from an AR-15 rifle fired by Luis Roman.
“The suspect fired nine rounds at the vehicle, two striking within centimeters of where his head would be behind the windshield,” Clements said, explaining officers later arrested Roman and found the AR-15 rifle was a ghost gun. Roman pleaded not guilty to several crimes and he has a court hearing scheduled for next month.
“We were extremely lucky on that one,” Clements said.
Roman is hardly alone, as ghost guns are popping up ever more frequently in criminal cases and court hearings across the state. For example, federal investigators in January arrested and charged Robert Alcantra, accusing the Providence man of transporting gun parts from Pennsylvania to Rhode Island, where they found a “ghost gun home factory” inside his apartment.
In July, Nicholas Daly of North Kingstown pleaded no contest to manufacturing ghost guns using a 3D printer inside his home. He was accused of then taking the firearms to work and showing them off.
Last month, Jerardy Cruz was sentenced to five years in prison after pleading no contest to possessing and manufacturing a ghost gun. Police served a warrant on his Providence home last year and said they found him in the process of building a ghost gun using a handheld drill. Police said they seized a Polymer80 9mm pistol and seven ghost gun kits from the same company.
Late Sunday night, Providence police responded to a fight outside a night club on Broad Street where officers said they seized a Polymer80 ghost gun “with a green upper slide with nothing in the chamber and 15 live 9mm rounds in a black magazine which was inserted into the magazine well,” according to a police report.
Federal regulators earlier this year created a new rule that went into effect last month and will now require all guns made at home to have serial numbers. All buyers must go through a background check, according to the rule.
Proponents are hopeful the new rule will stem the proliferation of ghost guns getting into the hands of criminals, but Neronha is concerned it could be only a matter of time before firearm companies find a new way to flood the market with something else to further complicate the jobs of law enforcement.
“The ingenuity of the firearms industry is remarkable, and I don’t mean remarkable in a positive way,” Neronha said. “What we are going to have to be is really vigilant about what the next scheme is.”