ILLUSTRATION: ZOE VAN DIJK FOR HUFFPOST

Inside The Right-Wing Movement To Boost Untraceable ‘Ghost Guns’

A HuffPost investigation shows groups like Guns N’ Bitcoin are using cryptocurrency and popular platforms for extremists to duck federal firearms regulations.

Pink and green grenades covered in Bitcoin logos. Conference attendees decked out in either Hawaiian florals or camouflage, posing on ranges and bedrooms with their creations. “Print Guns Not Money” T-shirts, available for just $32.

Welcome to the Instagram feed of Guns N’ Bitcoin, a community for the growing movement to ensure an endless source of untraceable firearms.

The group, founded in 2019, promotes new ways to develop and purchase so-called “ghost guns” — guns that are 80% complete gun and are often sold with a kit of the materials needed to finish building the firearm. Another increasingly popular option is building ghost guns out of entirely 3D-printed parts. While legal, these guns have no serial number and don’t require background checks; their documented rise poses serious obstacles to law enforcement’s ability to track sales and distribution. These kits account for a growing number of guns used in crimes, and have led to a flurry of stories in recent months.

Less documented, however, is the growing popularity of these weapons among far-right and anti-government movements.

“Ghost guns fit into a perfect niche of undetectable, untraceable and keeps the government away from you.”

- Jon Lewis, Program on Extremism at George Washington University

Gun safety advocates say ghost guns are ending up in the hands of individuals who are radicalized through online channels and predisposed to violence, and that it’s a recipe for disaster. These people are finding new ways to anonymize the design, purchase and dissemination of weapons — creating an entire industry beyond government regulation.

Almost 24,000 ghost guns were recovered from potential crime scenes between 2016 and 2020, according to a classified alert for law enforcement that media obtained earlier this year. Two years ago, the Homeland Security Committee found that ghost guns are a threat to national security because of their appeal to anti-government extremists and terrorists.

In a joint report released in May, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security identified domestic lone wolf actors as the greatest terror threat to the U.S. and noted that internet forums enabled radicalization and a capacity for violence. The report did not explicitly mention ghost guns, but the groups of concern certainly overlap.

“It’s not an overstatement to say that the propagation of ghost guns increases the likelihood that individuals in these far-right movements have the tools they need to engage in mass violence,” said Jon Lewis, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. “Ghost guns fit into a perfect niche of undetectable, untraceable and keeps the government away from you.”

Gun safety advocates have pushed for stronger legislation to control this flow of guns for the last decade. But only 11 states regulate the sale and possession of ghost guns, and in eight of those states, these laws were passed in 2018.

Marketing for firearms relies on reminding people that they can provide a feeling of power, according to new research that Everytown For Gun Safety shared with HuffPost. The gun safety organization also found that online communities can easily allow a socially isolated and irritable person to obtain a gun and carry out a mass shooting.

Although ghost guns have been available online since the early 2010s, Everytown For Gun Safety released a report last year that found that 68% of online ghost gun sales have occurred since 2014, and that the most viewed instructional videos were posted on YouTube as recently as 2019 and 2020.

Since Jan. 6, however, the industry around these weapons has moved away from mainstream websites like Facebook and YouTube. Interested parties now congregate on decentralized, private social media platforms like Zion, LBRY and GAB. Many of these users also exclusively use anonymous cryptocurrency to purchase 3D printers and 3D-printed parts, further obscuring any traces of the people behind these transactions.

Guns N’ Bitcoin has provided a forum for enthusiasts of that niche, both online and off. Since 2020, the group has held two in-person Bear Arms N’ Bitcoin conferences to share the latest technology, tips and improvements on gun part manufacturing, as well as information on how to further anonymize cryptocurrency transactions. Featured speakers discuss topics that extremism researchers have said provide a handbook for far-right extremists who want to operate completely under the radar.

For five months, HuffPost has tracked the activity of these Bitcoin and ghost gun influencers on Twitter and the video streaming platform Odysee, scoured the newsletters of major ghost gun sellers, and interviewed Guns N’ Bitcoin’s founder. The people behind these accounts are often anonymous, but their online footprint suggests a large and growing network of far-right ghost gun sellers and enthusiasts driving the industry even deeper underground.

Forums That Prize Anonymity

Influencers and leaders in the ghost gun movement are overwhelmingly anonymous online characters, and the Bear Arms N’ Bitcoin conference encourages attendees to use pseudonyms and otherwise obscure their real identities. Guns N’ Bitcoin also does not allow live photos or videos at its events.

“Privacy is a human right. Those who seek to violate it have the burden of proof to justify it,” founder Ragnar Lifthrasir told HuffPost. (Unlike most in this community, Lifthrasir claims to use his real name, saying he “doesn’t have cause” to hide his identity.)

A screenshot of a Guns N' Bitcoin event page.
A screenshot of a Guns N' Bitcoin event page.
Guns N' Bitcoin

Lifthrasir said he discovered cryptocurrency after getting a master’s degree in real estate development in 2009. He found Bitcoin two years later, and he credits it with lifting him out of poverty and allowing him to put on the first Bear Arms N’ Bitcoin event.

He also said ghost guns and crypto provide a bulwark against creeping government overreach.

We are living through an acceleration of government tyranny, private sector deplatforming, and radicalization of political groups,” he said. “3D printing technology, Bitcoin, and other software is freedom tech that gives individuals tools that function as asymmetric defenses against more powerful adversaries.”

There are other Bitcoin and ghost guns conferences and competitions such as Bitcoin 2022 — the largest consortium of Bitcoin experts — and Guns for Everyone, which hosted a shooting competition for people who made their own guns. But Bear Arms N’ Bitcoin is the only conference HuffPost has identified that combines the two with a focus on privacy.

Like many gun enthusiasts, Lifthrasir is concerned that the U.S. might actually crack down on firearm ownership. Many followers posting in the online forums are convinced that the government is going to take away their guns and that their Second Amendment rights will be violated.

Lifthrasir said he does not consider himself a part of the far-right movement – just “politically disillusioned and pro-1st and 2nd amendments.” He also claimed that none of the invited conference speakers were part of any extremist groups. However, some past speakers were decked out in Hawaiian floral patterned clothes — the preferred dress of the Boogaloo movement, a far-right anti-government group. The shirts were worn “most likely as a joke,” Lifthrasir said.

Regardless, Lifthrasir said, the conference has an open-door policy and welcomes even “controversial” attendees. (Lifthrasir declined to provide the number of attendees at past events, but said the number of attendees has continued to increase.)

One of those more controversial attendees has been Cody Wilson, who became the first person to print a 3D ghost gun in 2013. In 2018, following an international pursuit, Wilson was arrested on allegations of child sexual assault. He was released in 2019 after pleading guilty to injuring a minor, registering as a sex offender in Texas, and receiving seven years of probation.

In a 2020 video laden with Boogaloo and extremist symbols, Wilson announced he was “back.” He’s been active in the Guns N’ Bitcoin group under the alias Dominica Yowls (an anagram of his name), and uses a pink-haired woman as his avatar. “Dominica Yowls” was a featured speaker at the April 2021 Bear Arms N’ Bitcoin event in Austin, Texas, and is set to attend the upcoming conference in Miami in April.

Most speakers scheduled set to speak in April are represented with cartoons or other icons in lieu of photos: a cat holding a mug with Bitcoin’s logo on it, digital folders balancing on guns, the back of a pilot’s head.

Among them is Samourai Wallet, self-described “privacy activists” focused on how to hide digital currency transactions. Samourai Wallet’s bio touts accomplishments like the ability to develop a “modern bitcoin wallet hand forged to keep your transactions private, your identity masked, and your funds secured.”

On Twitter, Samourai Wallet and the Guns N’ Bitcoin pages follow characters masked behind obscure imagery like the Don’t-Tread-On-Me snake, as well as some more blatantly alt-right iconography like Pepe The Frog. Lifthrasir himself has retweeted posts lauding the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old who shot three people (two of whom died) in Kenosha, Wisconsin, during protests against racial injustice in August 2020 and quickly became a symbol of resistance on the far-right.

Much of Guns N’ Bitcoin’s online activity may appear harmless, but it also includes vague or obscure references to, as well as imagery associated with, white supremacy and the far-right, said Lewis, who reviewed the pages at HuffPost’s request.

“​​This, accompanied by the persistent use of Boogaloo-themed iconography among his speakers, suggests a potentially deeper seeding of these themes within this broader ecosystem,” Lewis said.

Matt Kriner, a senior research scholar at Middlebury College’s Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism, also reviewed the imagery and found that the content on both Lifthrasir’s social media and the conference website reflect Boogaloo sympathies.

“The overlap of the various aesthetics present on the individual speakers’ social media and the conference website illustrates how the Boogaloo movement is perpetually evolving to incorporate niche far-right views to stay relevant,” Kriner said.

Kriner said Lifthraisr’s online activity suggests deeper affiliations with niche accelerationist themes, such as societal collapse and the use of disruptive technologies like 3D printing to challenge the parameters of the Second Amendment.

“While not exclusive to extremists, those themes are common within hardened accelerationist chat rooms and manifestos. All together it paints an unconvincing picture that [his] event is somehow disconnected from those other spaces,” Kriner said. “It fits a deeper pattern of movement adherents knowing where the line is and fitting their outward expression of Boogaloo sympathies to fall just short of concern.”

How Crypto Fuels Ghost Guns

The online ghost gun world operates mostly within the realms of chatrooms on Discord, GAB and other websites where extremists gather once they’ve been banned from Facebook.

A particularly popular website among the far-right is LBRY — a decentralized blockchain-founded website and the browser side of Odysee, a video platform that has been dubbedYouTube of the Far-Right.” Users can sell products, including whole and partially completed ghost guns, and monetize their activity to develop credits, which they can then exchange into a cryptocurrency and use to make purchases within the site. A real name and photo aren’t necessary to sign up for LBRY via Odysee, and the site’s structure allows users to remain unidentified.

“You need censorship-resistant digital forums,” Lifthrasir told “Bottomshelf Bitcoin” podcast host Josh Humphrey in a September 2019 episode. The show features different Bitcoin experts and frequently tackles subjects like government surveillance and dealing with “the state.”

Lifthrasir has called crypto the best form of currency because “a Bitcoin economy isn’t tied to identity.” That’s what makes it “the preferred money for 3D gun printing commerce,” he wrote in a December 2020 blog post. “A Bitcoin economy is a censorship-free economy.”

A screenshot of an Odysee page featuring ghost guns.
A screenshot of an Odysee page featuring ghost guns.
Odysee

Cryptocurrencies are decentralized, but transactions are still tracked digitally in a public ledger called the blockchain. Guns N’ Bitcoin’s featured speakers teach their followers how to hide those digital transactions.

One option is to use Monero, a private cryptocurrency that is rising in popularity. It’s more effective in hiding personal details because it uses one-time addresses for every transaction, masking the receiver and sender. It also uses Ring Confidential Transactions, a protocol in which the amount of the transaction is hidden.

“I’m not against Bitcoin because Bitcoin made a lot of money for the 3D gun community. If we had used PayPal or Visa, we would have been kicked off of the financial system really quickly,” Anti-Gunner Leaks, a 3D-ghost gun booster who began using a separate account after his personal one was suspended, said on a Twitter Spaces event held by Guns N’ Bitcoin in November. “In terms of real radical activity, Monero is where it’s at.”

Eviane Leidig, a research fellow at the Hague-based International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, an independent think that that tackles online extremism, said crypto is a natural progression for far-right sympathizers, as they have always adapted to new technologies and are fueled by an anti-establishment ideology.

And in the early 2010s, cryptocurrency was critical to the burgeoning dark web’s black market, which allowed those who could not legally purchase firearms could easily do so online.

“They believe this is more self-control and autonomy over their financial transactions,” Leidig said. “Far-right actors using cryptocurrencies is an important tool towards their greater recruitment, mobilization and operational capacity. It definitely poses a danger for law enforcement to be able to actually monitor and track this activity.”

Leidig said she wasn’t surprised by HuffPost’s findings.

“First they were kicked off main platforms and started to make their own networking and social media sites,” Leidig said. “Now they’re trying to make their own tech for cryptocurrency.”

Experts Say Violence Is Predictable

In May 2020, according to security footage, Steven Carillo, an active duty Air Force sergeant, opened the sliding door of a white van without a license plate that was being driven by an accomplice. While driving by, Carillo allegedly shot two security guards, killing one, in Oakland, California.

Carillo, a member of the Boogaloo movement, used a ghost machine gun with an added silencer.

After disappearing for a week, prosecutors allege Carrillo shot and killed a deputy sheriff while trying to escape arrest in the woods of Santa Cruz. He’s now in jail awaiting trial for murder-related charges after pleading not guilty.

“The laws as written have not caught up with the technology and the ease with which one can now make an untraceable firearm.”

- Nick Suplina, Everytown For Gun Safety

California is one of the 11 states with existing ghost gun laws; it requires manufacturers to obtain a license for all firearms, including ghost guns, as of 2022. On the city level, San Francisco and San Diego have both banned sales of the homemade weapons.

Federally, the Undetectable Firearms Act is the main law prohibiting weapons that airport security can’t detect, focused primarily on guns with less than 3.7 ounces of metal content. The law was passed in December 1988 to prevent terrorism in airports, and it has not been updated since.

Lawmakers tried to pass updated federal legislation banning ghost guns and 3D-printed gun parts in 2018, but were not successful.

“The laws as written have not caught up with the technology and the ease with which one can now make an untraceable firearm,” said Nick Suplina, senior vice president for law and policy at Everytown For Gun Safety.

One month before Carrillo’s alleged crime, more than two dozen state attorneys general had written a letter to then-Attorney General William Barr and then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, asking them to block file-sharing on Defense Distributed, a prominent site for sharing instructions on how to print 3D gun parts.

“Easy access to untraceable weapons will also impede law enforcement’s ability to investigate and respond to crimes committed with these uniquely dangerous weapons,” the letter read. Neither Barr nor Pompeo publicly responded to the letter.

But some action may finally be underway. In April, the Biden administration announced moderate executive action on ghost guns, directing the Department of Justice to issue a “new comprehensive” report on firearm trafficking with annual updates and propose new rules.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has an Internet Investigations Center, which it established in 2012 to tackle illegal firearms trafficking on the internet. “ATF enforces federal firearms laws against anyone engaged in illegal firearm manufacturing or trafficking activities – regardless of their political views – as we work to protect the public from violent crime involving firearms,” an agency spokesperson told HuffPost.

But in 2019, Everytown For Gun Safety filed a petition with ATF to specifically address the threat of ghost guns. The petition highlighted the increase in ghost gun usage over the previous 10 years and argued that ATF’s definition of firearms — which excludes these weapons — endangered communities across the country.

In May, the agency issued a draft proposed rule that would require background checks to own ghost gun parts and change the definition of “firearm” to include kits for constructing those weapons. The comment period closed in August, but the new rules have not yet been finalized.

The agency did not answer HuffPost’s queries about any plans to regulate or prevent extremist groups’ use of cryptocurrency and masking financial transactions.

Everytown has filed four lawsuits in the past two years against major ghost gun sellers, including Polymer80, and 3D ghost gun plan distributors like DEFCAD, a website that claims to be the “world’s largest repository for small arms technical data.” Everytown also sued DEFCAD for trademark infringement, false designation of origin and unfair competition, after the company posted a ghost gun bearing the group’s logo.

DEFCAD called the lawsuit “outrageous” in a statement on its site: “They literally argue it’s trademark infringement if a third party service or social media user shares a computer file that could allow a recipient to print a piece of plastic reproducing their shitty trademarks.”

The city of Los Angeles has also sued Polymer80, claiming it did not conduct any background checks on the purchasers or inscribe serial numbers onto its guns. Polymer80 has objected to the lawsuits, arguing that ghost guns don’t meet the definition of firearms.

Ghost guns are the fastest growing gun safety threat in the country,” Suplina said. “They threaten to undermine every gun law because it circumvents the entire system that we’ve put into place for manufacturing and selling firearms.”