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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.

Why we had a reporter build a ghost gun

At The Press Democrat, our editors began discussing ways to explore the rise in ghost guns in ways that readers could relate to and easily understand.

But in order to solve or explain a problem, you have to understand it, and frankly, we didn’t understand much about ghost guns.

To get a better handle on the issue, we asked one of our veteran reporters, Austin Murphy, to do two things: Tell readers how serious the problem is and also see how easy it is to obtain a weapon that has no serial number.

For more on why we wrote this story, go here.

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.

Press Democrat writer Austin Murphy builds a Polymer80 Glock 19 clone "ghost gun" with parts acquired through internet dealers in his home on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
Press Democrat writer Austin Murphy builds a Polymer80 Glock 19 clone "ghost gun" with parts acquired through internet dealers in his home on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

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.

It wasn’t time to build the gun just yet.

“No way to track your purchase”

To legally make a homemade firearm in California, you must apply to the state’s Department of Justice for a unique serial number. While I did jump through those bureaucratic hoops, many who buy and build ghost guns do not — for the simple, obvious reason that they’d fail the background check.

Under JSD Supply’s online “Terms and Conditions,” customers are asked to certify that they’ve never been convicted of a felony, or of domestic violence, or been “committed to a mental institution or adjudicated as mentally defective,” and that they are not “currently under a court order restraining you from stalking, threatening, or harassing a child or an intimate partner.”

Yet the company could hardly be more overt in its appeal to potential buyers who want a firearm, but couldn’t pass a background check for precisely the reasons cited above. It poses the question on its website: “Why build your own gun?”

With other firearms, comes the reply, “You go to the gun store, fill out a bunch of forms. They’ll run a background check, and depending on your state, you could wait awhile.”

By ordering with JSD, “you’ll have the 80 percent lower receiver and all the parts you need to finish a firearm yourself shipped to your door. No paperwork. And without serialization, there is no way to track your purchase.”

Press Democrat writer Austin Murphy ordered the pieces necessary to build a Polymer80 Glock 19 clone "ghost gun" through internet dealers. Photo taken on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Press Democrat writer Austin Murphy ordered the pieces necessary to build a Polymer80 Glock 19 clone "ghost gun" through internet dealers. Photo taken on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

A twinge of panic

As my three brothers never tire of reminding me, I am not handy. I was the Cub Scout whose Pinewood Derby rig wobbled across the finish line missing a wheel. I have fired a gun twice in my life. And now I would ... build one?

The white, cardboard P80 box containing the PF940C’s “lower receiver” arrived in the mail with a cool sticker, but no instructions. For guidance, I went to the Polymer80 website and clicked on “Manuals.” To properly bore the holes for various pins, I would need a drill press equipped with a cross vise, a contraption that does not appear in my modest, motley tool collection.

Feeling a twinge of panic as I reviewed the instructions, I texted my neighbor, Nathaniel, who owns several guns and has access to a serious workshop. The next day, we headed to his shop with the kit.

Drilling the holes went smoothly. Polymer80 pretty much idiot-proofs those steps by including a jig that holds the lower frame of the gun, ensuring the holes go in the right place.

The parts of the Polymer 80 Glock 19 "ghost gun" are held into place using pins hammered through the firearm through predrilled holes. Photo taken on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
The parts of the Polymer 80 Glock 19 "ghost gun" are held into place using pins hammered through the firearm through predrilled holes. Photo taken on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

It took longer to cut and bore out, then smooth the “barrel block.” After employing a drill bit, X-acto knife, then some sandpaper to finish that job, we used a nipper to cut out rectangles of polymer sitting in the way of where we needed to sink the trigger housing rail, then the front locking block.

Setting down a file at one point during this process — which, frankly, was already proving more laborious than I’d been led to believe by Polymer80 — Nate noted that the time required to assemble this gun served, in a way, as “its own cooling off period.”

Life, and a series of other deadlines, intervened. I would finish the gun on my dining room table two weeks later.

An ‘enormous problem’ in California

I hadn’t realized, when placing my order, that this handgun was the same Polymer80 model used by a man who shot two Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies in the head in an ambush last year. The assailant had a prior felony conviction. Both officers survived.

In response to a new rule proposed by the Justice Department in May to regulate ghost guns, Ted Cruz, the conservative senator from Texas, argued in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that they are “a made up problem” requiring no new regulation.

“There is nothing ghost-like about ghost guns. They look like guns. They shoot like guns. They kill like guns.”

Committee chairman Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, countered that the proposed rules were critical.

“There is nothing ghost-like about ghost guns,” he said. “They look like guns. They shoot like guns. They kill like guns.”

Another gun made of Polymer80 components was used in a triple murder in Glendale in April 2019, according to a lawsuit filed against the company by the city of Los Angeles, in conjunction with the gun control advocacy group Everytown For Gun Safety.

More than 700 untraceable Polymer 80 firearms were recovered by Los Angeles police in 2020, the complaint said.

After serving a search warrant in the 100 block of Howard Street in Petaluma in late August, detectives from the Sonoma County Sheriff’s office located a pair of Polymer80 DIY weapons, along with an AK-47-style rifle. A 19-year-old man was charged with being a felon and addict in possession of a firearm.

“This is an absolutely enormous problem in California.”

Because of its relatively strict gun laws, the Golden State has become an especially lucrative market for merchants of ghost guns.

In 2019, around 10,000 of the unserialized weapons were recovered by law enforcement agencies across the country, according to estimates by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF. A full 27% of those weapons were collected in California.

In 2020, that share was up to to 65% of the guns seized, according to a statement from the office of Chesa Boudin, the District Attorney of San Francisco.

FILE - In this Nov. 23, 2020 file photo San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin speaks at a news conference in San Francisco. Boudin announced a lawsuit Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, against three California companies that make and distribute "ghost guns," the untraceable, build-it-yourself weaponry that accounted for nearly half of the city's firearms recovered in gun killings last year. (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)
FILE - In this Nov. 23, 2020 file photo San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin speaks at a news conference in San Francisco. Boudin announced a lawsuit Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, against three California companies that make and distribute "ghost guns," the untraceable, build-it-yourself weaponry that accounted for nearly half of the city's firearms recovered in gun killings last year. (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

In October, California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced the state was joining a lawsuit against three companies that make and sell ghost gun kits. The original complaint was filed in August by Boudin’s office, which sought to hold the companies accountable for the “epidemic” of unserialized weapons “ravaging San Francisco and the State of California.”

Just 6% of firearms recovered in connection with San Francisco homicides in 2019 were ghost ghost guns. In 2020, that number had spiked to 44%, according to the city’s police department.

After police in San Diego collected 233 ghost guns through June of this year — which exceeded the number they’d seized in all of 2020 — the city formed a team of five investigators focused solely on slowing the spread of those weapons.

“This is an absolutely enormous problem in California,” said David Pucino, a staff attorney at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which has offices in San Francisco and Washington.

Ghost guns do more than put firearms in the hands of those who shouldn’t possess them, Pucino said. “They make the business of trafficking illegally in firearms much, much easier, by eliminating the need to find straw purchasers” to obtain the guns, thus eliminating records that might provide investigators with a paper trail, when those guns are eventually used in a crime.

The Giffords Law Center filed that civil suit along with the city of San Francisco. By some estimates, he said, as many as 40% of guns recovered in the state are now ghost guns.

“And there’s no reason to expect those numbers to go down,” Pucino said. “In fact I would expect them to go up, unless and until the Biden administration’s rule goes into effect.”

Press Democrat writer Austin Murphy attempts to attach the assembled slide to the frame of a Polymer80 Glock 19 clone "ghost gun." Murphy acquired the parts through internet dealers. Photo taken on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
Press Democrat writer Austin Murphy attempts to attach the assembled slide to the frame of a Polymer80 Glock 19 clone "ghost gun." Murphy acquired the parts through internet dealers. Photo taken on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

Rule change on the horizon

Under the 53-year-old federal Gun Control Act, the kits sold by Polymer80 and other companies to assemble ghost guns do not fit the definition of “firearm,” and therefore aren’t regulated as such.

Ghost gun makers “have found a weak spot, exploit a weird definitional problem, especially in federal law,” said Alex McCourt, an assistant scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

Laws governing these weapons “have lagged behind the technological advancement,” he said.

President Joe Biden wants to fix that.

In April, the Department of Justice announced an executive action that would expand the definition of “firearm” to include ghost gun kits.

The new rule, which required no approval from Congress, could go into effect by late 2021. When it does, those untraceable, home-assembled gun kits will be treated like other firearms: they’ll be required to have serial numbers, and will only be sold after a background check.

“Home built firearms aren't new. Criminals using firearms isn't new. If any group of people need protection and a means to self-defense, it's the repressed people of the state of California.”

The new law is certain to be challenged in court. It has long been legal, many gun rights advocates point out, to build firearms in the privacy of one’s home.

“We’ve had that right ... ever since we’ve had America,” said Val Finnell, director of the Pennsylvania chapter of Gun Owners of America, a gun-rights group on a recent podcast.

His guest on that podcast, JSD Supply founder Jordan Vinroe, described the pending Biden rule changes as “potential feel-good things” that will fail to “curb any crime.”

“Building your own firearm is a right we have had since the firearm was invented,” Vinroe wrote in an email responding to an interview request from The Press Democrat.

“Home built firearms aren't new. Criminals using firearms isn't new. If any group of people need protection and a means to self-defense, it's the repressed people of the state of California.”

He challenged me to “point to any evidence that background checks and serial numbers” actually prevent any crimes.

Vinroe’s point is one often made in the argument against regulation of ghost guns: the new rules won’t work, because criminals will simply find some other illegal avenue to get weapons.

Using that logic, replied Adam Garber, executive director of the Pennsylvania-based gun control group CeaseFire PA, why write any laws?

“We have laws against burglary. Do people still break into homes and steal stuff? Sure,” he said. “But the laws discourage that. They come with consequences.”

Yes, laws can be broken, Garber said, “but they create a disincentive. They provide a structure for our society to keep people safe.”

CeaseFire PA isn’t calling for a ban on all firearms, he explained. “We’re pointing out that we live in a country with some of the highest death rates from firearms in the world. And that’s because we don’t have safety protocols and provisions in place. So let’s do that.”

While Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Mahurin understands the concerns of citizens “with strong ties” to the Second Amendment, “those aren’t the folks we’re arresting,” he said. “Those aren’t the folks we’re dealing with for having ghost guns. It’s gang members, it’s people with assault charges and other prior felony convictions who shouldn’t have guns in the first place.”

The parts of the Polymer80 Glock 19 clone "ghost gun" are held into place using pins hammered through the firearm through predrilled holes. Photo taken on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
The parts of the Polymer80 Glock 19 clone "ghost gun" are held into place using pins hammered through the firearm through predrilled holes. Photo taken on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

‘A danger to our community’

I bought the parts for my faux Glock online after failing to find an area gun shop that carried them.

“We’ve never sold the kits,” said Brian Thomson, director of operations and training at Rinkor Arms on Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa. The possibility that an unserialized firearm could end up in the hands of the wrong person “is a danger to our community,” he said, “and we don’t support anything of that sort.”

An employee at another Sonoma County gun shop described himself as “somewhat in agreement with the Second Amendment people who say, ‘Hey, if you want to build it, that is your given right.’”

At the same time, said the man, who asked that neither he nor his business be identified, to avoid becoming “a pariah in the gun world,” he is solidly opposed to selling ghost gun kits.

“You don’t want some dirtbag to get one,” he said.

Press Democrat writer Austin Murphy builds a Polymer80 Glock 19clone  "ghost gun" with parts acquired through internet dealers in his home on Thursday, Oct.14, 2021. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
Press Democrat writer Austin Murphy builds a Polymer80 Glock 19clone "ghost gun" with parts acquired through internet dealers in his home on Thursday, Oct.14, 2021. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

Expert help stands by

In a 2020 affidavit filed by ATF special agent Tolliver Hart to secure a search warrant for the Dayton, Nevada, headquarters of Polymer80, he recounted how it took another agent “approximately three hours” to transform the components of a Polymer80 “Buy Build Shoot” kit into “a fully functioning firearm.”

That made me feel a little better, as I struggled to finish my wannabe Glock. Phase 1, to mill and complete the lower receiver, took an hour and 45 minutes. Phase 2 took place in my dining room.

To make sure I made no dumb, dangerous mistakes, I invited a gun-expert acquaintance to observe and help. Even with guidance from several YouTube videos, and his considerable assistance, it took us another 2½ hours to finish the project.

He provided expertise. I provided slapstick — witness my dozen or so attempts to drop the itty-bitty slide lock into its elusive groove. Another Gong show: it took at least six tries for me to insert the needle-like rod into its proper channel, then slide the magazine release button under it.

When it finally came time to “rack” the slide, the movement started off smoothly. Halfway through, however, the slide kept running up against some unknown roadblock. We spent another hour disassembling, smoothing, filing, tinkering, reassembling.

There was profanity.

But the slide continued to be stubborn, balky. I could fire one shot, had I been at the range. After that, the gun would jam.

A quick internet search revealed that this is a problem common to those of us building Polymer80 Glock clones: “You're going to have to oil the crap out of it and manually rack the slide about 3 or 4 hundred times.”

Press Democrat writer Austin Murphy builds a Polymer80 Glock 19 clone "ghost gun" with parts acquired through internet dealers in his home on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Press Democrat writer Austin Murphy builds a Polymer80 Glock 19 clone "ghost gun" with parts acquired through internet dealers in his home on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

That advice came from someone on a Reddit thread begun by a Polymer80 customer having precisely the same problems I was.

Eventually, the thread said, “The friction and abrasion will give you the tolerances you need.”

My friend the gun expert took the pistol home overnight and spent a few more hours troubleshooting. By the time he was finished, the slide was, well, sliding. The gun was cycling flawlessly, he reported, and ready for the range.

Except, it wasn’t.

Before heading to a shooting range, I went to Sportsman’s Arms in Petaluma to pick up a 10-round magazine and some bullets.

But California requires a point-of-sale background check to buy ammunition. When the guy behind the counter swiped my driver’s license, he shook his head. “It’s not letting me sell you the ammo,” he said.

He checked my Firearm Safety Certificate. To apply for the unique serial number, I’d been required to pass a 30-question basic gun safety test. Then he glanced at a document I’d handed him. On it, I’d underlined the unique serial number.

“Is your gun registered?” he asked. I thought I’d done that by applying for the serial number, I replied.

With great patience, he explained that no, I still needed to register the weapon with the state. Because I hadn’t, he couldn’t legally sell me ammunition. As he spoke, he put his hand over the 50-round box of bullets on the counter, sliding it away from me.

“I can still sell you the magazine,” he said. “Do you want it?”

I did.

Unlike me, not everyone buying ghost guns is bothering to abide by the rules, as law enforcement personnel across California can attest. Back I went, into the bureaucratic labyrinth, to fill out the form and write the check that will allow me, in 10 days or so, to legally fire this weapon.

In the meantime, the folks who sell ghost guns are keeping a wary eye on the Biden administration, as it works to fix a much bigger problem.

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88

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