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In 2021, Lombardo said ghost guns weren’t a ‘big issue’ in Las Vegas. Police records say otherwise

Joe Lombardo holds the tip of his hat and smiles at a crowd. There’s an American flag behind taking up the entire background.
Lucia Starbuck
/
KUNR Public Radio
Then-Republican gubernatorial candidate and Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo held a campaign rally in Reno, Nev., on Sept. 15, 2022.

Editor’s notes: This story was produced as part of a collaboration between KUNR Public Radio and APM Reports as part of the Public Media Accountability Initiative, which supports investigative reporting at local media outlets around the country.

As a warning, this story contains strong language.


In June 2021, a 17-year-old pulled a pistol out of his Louis Vuitton shoulder bag and fatally shot a 39-year-old man in the parking lot of a Las Vegas apartment complex. According to court documents, the victim was high on methamphetamine and had been acting erratically before swinging at the teen with a fist.

Federal and Nevada state laws prohibit minors from possessing firearms in most cases.

In this case, the weapon used was a ghost gun – a firearm originally sold as unfinished parts without a serial number or background check and assembled at home.

“If he did not have that gun,” the teen’s lawyers wrote, the man who was shot “would likely be alive today.”

That same day, Joe Lombardo, sheriff of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, met on Zoom with a group of pro-gun voters.

He was in the early stages of his campaign for the Republican nomination for governor. The event was held by the Nevada Firearms Coalition PAC. When the group’s lobbyist, Randi Thompson, asked about his stance on ghost guns, Lombardo downplayed the prevalence of the untraceable, easy-to-assemble firearms. He said his department had tracked only six incidents involving ghost guns over the previous year and none of those guns had been used in crimes.

Lombardo told Thompson that ghost guns were “not a big issue.”

But according to a list of impounded ghost guns his department maintained at the time, Lombardo’s claims were wildly inaccurate. Las Vegas police seized more than 200 ghost guns in the year leading up to his June interview, according to an analysis by KUNR Public Radio and APM Reports.

Despite Lombardo’s claims to the contrary, officers seized ghost guns while responding to violent crimes such as robbery, assault and domestic violence.

Just three weeks before Lombardo made his comments, officers arrested a man with three prior felony convictions after he allegedly pointed a ghost gun at his ex-girlfriend and threatened to kill her.

And three months before Lombardo’s statement, a 20-year-old man accidentally killed his 16-year-old brother in a hotel room on the Las Vegas Strip with a ghost gun he built himself. According to media reports, the man told authorities that he’d been trying to scare his brother while holding a gun he didn’t realize was loaded.

KUNR and APM Reports reviewed records of nearly 40,000 handguns that were seized by Las Vegas police between 2015 and late 2023. The analysis was limited to handguns, because they represent the overwhelming majority of firearms used in crime. Most of the ghost guns seized by Las Vegas police during that time were sold by Polymer80, based in Dayton, Nevada. The company, which “designs and develops firearms and their components,” is the largest source of ghost guns in the country, according to law enforcement agencies.

Lombardo’s comments as a candidate foreshadowed how he would approach the issue of ghost guns as governor. Last year, as his former department continued to seize dozens of ghost guns each month, Lombardo vetoed a bill that would have banned the guns’ components.

Lombardo declined interview requests to discuss the discrepancy but issued a statement through his spokeswoman in the governor’s office.

“Sheriff Lombardo shared the number of ‘PMF’ (privately made or manufactured firearms) incidents in 2021, which was the number provided to him at the time,” a spokeswoman for the governor’s office wrote in an email. She said crime statistics change with evolving reporting requirements.

Polymer80 did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

In Clark County, the office of sheriff is nonpartisan. And since at least 2016, Lombardo has expressed support for some gun control measures, including universal background checks. But as a candidate for governor, he appealed to the Republican base by downplaying the threat posed by untraceable weapons.

The Nevada Firearms Coalition PAC would go on to endorse Lombardo in the general election.

Thompson, who is no longer with the Nevada Firearms Coalition PAC, said she was surprised when presented with the investigation’s findings. She recalled being glad to learn that Lombardo tracked ghost gun statistics as sheriff.

“Even if he told me if it was 200, that would have been fine,” she said. “I don’t think he was misleading us.”

Randy Mackie, president of the Nevada Firearms Coalition PAC, was unavailable for an interview but wrote in an email that he would want to question the gun records provided by Las Vegas police. He also downplayed the need for serial numbers on all firearms, saying it’s “essentially useless in solving non-possession charges.”

‘We got a lot of other stuff on our plate’

Both federal and Nevada law prohibit minors, people with felony records, and those subject to domestic violence restraining orders from possessing guns. But until a recent change to federal rules threw the status of ghost guns into limbo, manufacturers could sell them online without restrictions, allowing these “prohibited persons” to buy the parts and build a gun without having a background check.

A ghost gun and the packaging it came in are set on a table. A sign in front of the table reads, “Ghost gun. Buy-build-shoot pistol kit.”
Carolyn Kaster
/
AP
A Polymer80 ghost gun kit is displayed during an event at the White House on April 11, 2022. President Joe Biden announced new regulations on partially complete guns sold without serial numbers.

And their numbers have skyrocketed. Between 2017 and 2021, the number of ghost guns federal agents attempted to trace rose more than tenfold, from 1,629 to 19,273.

For these reasons, law enforcement organizations warned about their risks and supported policies restricting them.

But gun industry groups such as the National Shooting Sports Foundation defend ghost guns as part of an American tradition. They dismiss media coverage of such weapons as creating a “gun control boogeyman,” and claim any attempt to regulate them violates the Constitution.

It’s in that context that Thompson, with the Nevada Firearms Coalition PAC, asked Lombardo during the virtual candidate forum on June 24, 2021, what he’d seen as sheriff.

“First of all, can you tell me how many times an unserialized, homemade gun was used in a crime in Clark County?” she asked.

“We started tracking it around mid — about summer last year. And we’ve had six incidences with ghost guns,” Lombardo replied. “None of them were guns utilized in a crime. They were people in possession of them illegally, like in a [concealed carry weapon] capacity.”

In reality, Las Vegas police recovered 252 ghost guns in that period. That includes 230 ghost guns the department documented internally, plus 22 additional ghost guns that KUNR and APM Reports discovered through an analysis of department records.

The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department declined an interview request to discuss how police tracked ghost gun seizures within the department. But the department issued a written statement saying it was difficult to accurately count recovered ghost guns. “Officers or report takers manually input the type of firearm in a crime report narrative. Before 2021, the terminology referencing ghost guns was varied,” the email said.

A month before Lombardo made his comments in 2021, Nevada lawmakers banned ghost guns. Thompson had lobbied against the law prohibiting the weapons and their components. When Thompson asked Lombardo how he foresaw enforcing the ban, he explained it wasn’t a priority.

“That is not something we’re going to apply for a search warrant and go do something about. We got a lot of other stuff on our plate,” he said. “Nor would I give direction with the police department to be proactive in that space.”

After reviewing more than 100 incident reports involving ghost guns seized by Las Vegas police between September 2020 and July 2023, reporters found that most weren’t simple cases involving concealed carry. Cases linked to ghost guns included shootings, robberies, assaults and child custody disputes. There were also dozens of cases that involved people who were legally prohibited from owning a gun.

Just weeks before Lombardo met with the Nevada Firearms Coalition PAC, police arrested a man with three prior felony convictions in Las Vegas after responding to a domestic violence call involving a ghost gun.

After threatening his ex-girlfriend via text message, the man allegedly showed up at her apartment and pointed a Polymer80 handgun at her.

“B**** I can end you right now!” he said, according to the police report.

When police arrived, the man allegedly threw a backpack containing the gun into a bush and ran away. He then broke into a nearby home and hid until police found him in the pantry, according to the report.

Image
A graphic of a torn sheet of paper with copy from a Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department 2021 report.
APM Reports
Excerpt from a Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department report dated June 3, 2021, in which a convicted felon allegedly threatened to kill an ex-girlfriend with an unserialized ghost gun. The man later pleaded guilty to felony gun possession.

Text-only view

Excerpt from a Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department report dated June 3, 2021, in which a convicted felon allegedly threatened to kill an ex-girlfriend with an unserialized ghost gun. The man later pleaded guilty to felony gun possession.


I read James his Miranda rights from department LVMPD 148 card at approximately 0721 hours which James did not answer and did not choose to speak to Officers. James was placed under arrest.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:

James is a 3-time convicted out of the Casclos Los Angeles Torrance for Felony [OJ] (Convicted committed to prison in 2010), Felony [OJ] (Convicted prob/jail in 2006), Felony [OJ] (convicted committed to prison in 2007).

The firearm recovered is a black frame Polymer 80 handgun with a silver slide. Due to it being a Polymer 80 handgun it had no serial number on any part of the firearm. Crime scene analysis G. Haugh P#15290 responded to the South East Area Command, photographed the firearm, and swabbed the gun for DNA.

Due to the facts that James did willfully, unlawfully, and intentionally place [PRVCY] in reasonable apprehension of immediate bodily harm with a use of a deadly weapon by pointing his black Polymer 80 handgun a [PRVCY] and stating, “Bitch I can end you right now!”, James was placed under arrest for Assault Domestic Violence with a deadly weapon (NRS 200.471), transported to CCDC and booked accordingly.


Out of step

Ghost guns began growing in popularity about a decade ago, when manufacturers such as Polymer80 began marketing easily-completed pistol components. So-called “prohibited persons” could buy these weapons more readily than other guns, because ghost guns weren’t considered firearms under federal law.

Every firearm sold in the United States needs a serial number engraved by the manufacturer on its frame or receiver, where the trigger is located and ammunition feeds into the gun. By selling incomplete frames and receivers, ghost gun manufacturers avoided the guns’ categorization as a firearm, and escaped regulation. That allowed customers to buy the kits online and finish them at home without a legally required paper trail.

As the guns proliferated, the law enforcement community began to issue warnings.

Ghost gun regulation in Nevada


  • March 2016: Polymer80 begins shipping its first unserialized handgun frame, the Spectre

  • June 7, 2021: Former Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) signs first ghost gun ban into law

  • June 24, 2021: Polymer80 sues state of Nevada to overturn ghost gun ban

  • November 23, 2021: Court rules in favor of Polymer80, striking down critical elements of the law and allowing the company to continue producing ghost gun components

  • April 26, 2022: U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) publishes new rule subjecting ghost guns and their components to the same regulations as other firearms. A judge temporarily blocks the rule in court shortly thereafter

  • May 15, 2023: Nevada lawmakers approve second ghost gun ban

  • May 17, 2023: Gov. Joe Lombardo (R) vetoes second ghost gun ban

  • October 17, 2023: U.S. Supreme Court overturns an injunction against ATF’s ghost gun rule, allowing it to remain in effect while litigation continues

In 2018, the International Association of Chiefs of Police urged greater restrictions on ghost guns.

And the Major Cities Chiefs Association, of which Lombardo was a member during his time as sheriff, issued an August 2022 report detailing accelerating trends in the use of ghost guns for crimes.

“From January 2019 through May 2021, MCCA member agencies saw a 408% increase in criminal incidents involving a ghost gun,” it read.

The cities of Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles sued Polymer80 in 2020 and 2021, winning millions in penalties and settlements and blocking the sale of ghost gun parts in their jurisdictions.

During discovery in the Los Angeles case, the city’s lawyers learned Polymer80 had shipped more than 200,000 unserialized gun kits into California.

That same year, Nevada lawmakers passed a ghost gun ban that would have prevented Polymer80 from making and selling the weapons. Polymer80 sued the state, and the court struck down key provisions of the law. An appeal is pending.

Last year, Nevada legislators tried again, passing an updated ban to get around the judge’s decision.

But this time, Lombardo vetoed the measure and two other gun control bills. He said in a statement it would have placed an “impermissible burden” on gun owners.

Meanwhile, federal regulators have been working to restrict ghost guns. In April 2022, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives announced a regulatory change reclassifying the weapons as firearms subject to background checks.

A group of ghost gun manufacturers, including Polymer80, sued to overturn the new rule. But a judge recently ruled the federal reclassification could remain in place while the case progresses.

After the veto

Las Vegas police recovered more than 175 ghost guns in the six months following Lombardo’s veto.

Last year, police reported the murder of a 17-year-old boy. According to media reports, prosecutors alleged in a court hearing that the killing stemmed from an internal gang dispute.

Police records reveal at least three Polymer80 ghost guns were seized in connection with the murder.

In another case, officers found a Polymer80 handgun in the bedroom closet of a parolee. The man had previously pled guilty to weapons charges, which made him ineligible to own a gun.

In June 2021, while Lombardo made his pitch to Thompson and the pro-gun voters she represents, Thompson asked about his support for universal background checks.

“There’s always that mantra: ‘Well, crooks are gonna get them no matter what. The universal background check isn’t going to fix it,’” Lombardo said. “That doesn’t mean you don’t create a system to prevent bad guys from getting guns.”

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Bert is KUNR’s senior correspondent. He covers stories that resonate across Nevada and the region, with a focus on environment, political extremism and Indigenous communities.
Chris Haxel joined APM Reports as a correspondent in October 2023. He’s an investigative reporter with experience covering the military, gun culture, government, courts and technology.
Kate Martin joined APM Reports in October 2023 as a senior data reporter.
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