How easy is it to build a ghost gun? We asked our reporter to find out
EDITOR’S NOTE: We are reposting this November 2021 story in light of President Joe Biden’s announcement on Monday that the Justice Department is finalizing new regulations to crack down on ghost guns.
It was one of the more unusual assignments I’ve had in my nearly four decades of journalism.
With the problem of ghost guns proliferating not just around California but the country, my editors wanted me to see how easy it is to get your hands on a firearm that has no serial number and can’t be traced.
They picked a good month for me to to build a ghost gun.
“Glocktober is FINALLY here!” proclaimed the email in my inbox from an outfit called JSD Supply on Oct. 1.
The Pennsylvania-based company is one of the country’s leading retailers of do-it-yourself kits for making so-called “ghost guns,” the term for firearms that lack serial numbers and are therefore untraceable to law enforcement. Some have had the serial numbers removed, while others are assembled from kits or even made with 3D printers.
While these weapons have been around for about a decade, law enforcement officers in Sonoma County — and across the country — have noted a recent, dramatic uptick in the numbers of ghost guns being used in violent crimes. The problem is especially acute in California, which on Oct. 13 threw its weight behind a lawsuit against a trio of companies that make and sell ghost guns.
After seizing three illegal, unserialized weapons in 2018, then 10 in 2019, Santa Rosa police collected another 15 last year. As of Wednesday, said Sgt. Chris Mahurin, officers had brought in 37 ghost guns – more than a quarter of all the firearms they’d collected for evidence purposes.
As of Oct. 13, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office had seized 28 ghost guns over the previous year, said Sgt. Juan Valencia. That was up from the 23 they’d collected the year before. The majority of those weapons, he said, “have been linked to narcotics and gang activity.”
Around the state, communities are seeing similar increases in seizures, which the Los Angeles Police Department describes as an epidemic with deadly consequences.
In 2013, one of the guns used to kill five people in a mass shooting at Santa Monica College was an AR-15 built from a kit; and a Tehama County gunman, who was prohibited from owning a firearm, killed five and injured nine others in 2017 using guns he made at home illegally.
To help us better understand the issue, Press Democrat editors asked me to purchase and assemble a ghost gun. They had a lot of questions, but the main one was this: How easy is it to buy, and build, one of these weapons?
The answer: shockingly easy.
Getting my hands on the parts was a snap.
Shopping online, I had no trouble ordering the lower receiver, or frame, of a pistol. In a separate transaction, I requested a completion kit for that gun, including the slide, barrel and trigger mechanism — “everything needed to finish your own pistol like a professional, without the paperwork,” promised the supplier.
Both packages arrived on my doorstep a few days after I’d ordered them. Actually building the gun, for this un-handy reporter, was a heavier lift. Even with help from two friends, it took about a day longer than I’d expected.
But all in all, it took less than eight hours, spread over several days, to build a smoothly functioning, lethal weapon.
That felt slightly surreal — I’ve never owned a firearm — as did submitting, on a recent expense report, a $109.98 charge for the lower receiver of a Polymer80 PF940C handgun — basically a Glock 19 knockoff.
But I still needed a slide, barrel and other components to complete the weapon. That’s when the sticker shock hit. It looked like those parts were going cost in the neighborhood of $450.
To the rescue came JSD Supply, based in Prospect, Pennsylvania. With a hefty Glocktober discount, I scored a PF940C “Full Build Kit” — minus the frame, which I already had — for $319.
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