GHOST GUNS: California criminals building, buying untraceable firearms to get around gun laws

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A FOX 11 special report is taking you into the world of “ghost guns”, homemade firearms that have no serial number or identifying markings, and aren’t registered with the state of California.

As long as you’re allowed to own a gun, it’s perfectly legal for you to build your own ghost gun, but the consequences can be deadly when they fall into the wrong hands, including those who aren’t allowed to own firearms.

In November 2017, Kevin Neal went on a shooting rampage in Tehama County, California, opening fire on cars, homes, and an elementary school, killing five people before he was shot and killed by police.

A court order prohibited Neal from owning guns, so he built two rifles himself, ghost guns, which he used in the attacks.

In June 2013, in Santa Monica, John Zawahri murdered his dad and brother before setting their home on fire. He then went on a shooting rampage at Santa Monica College, killing three people before police gunned him down.

Zawahri was barred from buying a gun in California because of mental health issues, so he built his own AR-15 ghost gun, which was used in the deadly attacks.

Debra Lynn Fine was the only shooting victim to survive the attack, and she spoke with FOX 11.
“After I was shot, it was about a week later the first time I heard the word ghost gun,” she said. “He just stared at me, raised his gun, and started shooting through my windshield. He got 40 bullets into my car within about 60 seconds, and I was the only survivior.”

“I inspected Zawahri’s rifle after it was recovered,” said ATF Senior Special Agent David Hamilton. “It certainly looked like it was a ghost gun, looked to be clandestinely manufactured, there were no markings on it, certainly no serial numbers.

What the ATF did find, was a receipt showing Zawahri had bought what’s known as an unfinished receiver, commonly known as an 80% receiver or a blank, which is the building block of all ghost guns.

By itself, the unfinished receiver is nothing more than a paperweight, so it’s not considered a firearm, and not subject to federal regulations, no serial number, no background checks.

“The fire control cavity hasn’t been milled out, there haven’t been boles drilled in the side for the hammer pin, the trigger pin,” said Hamilton.

The unfinished receivers can be bought online, or at gun shows, and if you’ve got access to YouTube and some extra cash, you can buy all the parts and devices, and then get the online training you need to turn that chunk of metal into an untraceable firearm.

Only once the unfinished receiver has specific drilling and machining done to it is it considered a firearm under federal law, and thus subject to federal regulations.

“We’re recovering ghost guns almost every single day,” Hamilton said. “California has some very strict firearms laws, particularly in relation to assault weapons such as an AR-15, the trend for making ghost guns seems to have started in California, and it’s moving nationwide as well as over the border.”

FOX 11 spoke with an Army veteran who is a legal gun owner who built several of his own ghost guns, including an AR-15. He asked we only use his first name, Jeremy.

“I originally had no interest in building my own firearm until they told me I couldn’t,” Jeremy said. “I bought a parts kit from a gun show, I bought the upper and obviously the optics from the gun show and assembled it at home.”

Jeremy said with advances in 3D printing technology , the process is only getting easier, pointing FOX 11 to a device called the Ghost Gunner, which you can buy online for about $1700, and it does all the machining for you.

“It allows you to install schematics for an AR15 lower receiver on a home computer and control the machine that way, so it is literally and figuratively possible to buy a blank from a gun show, nobody would know, go home and drill these out yourselves. I’m actually on the wait list for the ghost gunner.”

FOX 11 went to a gun show in Costa Mesa, where unfinished receivers were being sold legally. No federal firearms license is required to sell the blanks, and there are no background checks because the blanks aren’t considered a firearm.

Everything else you need to build a ghost gun can be bought at a gun show. It’s all perfectly legal, but the ATF worries that criminals with sinister intentions can take advantage of how easy the process is.

“We’re not concerned with the hobbyists, we’re concerned with the criminals, particularly the violent criminals who might use ghost guns in crimes,” Hamilton said.

The ATF provided FOX 11 with photos showing numerous ghost guns they recovered after they were manufactured and sold from a warehouse in La Habra, California.

“We found in their crude records they kept that approximately 27 individuals who were prohibited from owning firearms had bought finished receivers, firearms, from this warehouse,” said Ginger Colbrun of ATF Los Angeles. “About 20 of them were felons, 6 of them had misdemeanor domestic ciolence, one was adjudicated as a mental defective, these are people who are not allowed to have firearms, and they’re the ones walking into these warehouses and having them made for them.”

To try and solve the issue, California has a pending regulation that would go into effect on July 1, 2018. It would require all homemade firearms that have already been built to be registered with California DOJ so they can be traced, and any future homemade firearms would have to be registered as well.

Legal, responsible gun owners say, criminals won’t follow the law.

“As a legal gun owner, I’m told I have to register these, so I will register by the deadline, but even when I register, how does that help stop someone who is not supposed to have one, not get them?” Jeremy said.

The ATF says, there is only so much they can do about the issue of ghost guns.

“To ATF, it’s either a firearm, or it’s not a firearm,” Colbrun said. “If it’s a firearm it’s regulated, and that’s when we can go in and make sure all the regulations are being followed, but if it’s not a firearm, it’s not regulated, and we have no authority. ATF is going to continue to take these firearms out of the hands of prohibited person, however, in terms of regulating the metal prior to it being a firearm, there’s nothing ATF can do about that, that would be in the hands of lawmakers, either federal or state.

“These ghost guns can kill,” Fine said. “I still think about him sometimes, I still think about John Zahwari, it’s strange to know that I’m alive, I made it, and they didn’t.”

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