Mail-order gun kits pose threat to public safety, challenge to police

John Woolfolk
The Mercury News

San Jose, Calif. – After every mass shooting, policymakers, law enforcement officials and both sides of America’s gun debate zero in on a few key questions: What kind of gun did the killer use, how did he get it and could any laws have prevented the tragedy?

But a disturbing new question was raised this week when authorities in Southern California revealed the pistol that a 16-year-old used to shoot five high school classmates and himself was an unregistered weapon made from a kit: Are California’s toughest-in-the-nation gun laws so easily circumvented that a kid might mail-order parts online and build one himself?

Home-made “ghost guns” without identifying serial numbers have been used in a number of recent shootings, authorities said. They also have inspired several new laws. The Los Angeles County Sheriff said the .45-caliber 1911-style pistol used at Saugus High School was built from an “80%” kit and had no serial number.

File-This Nov. 14, 2019, file photo shows students being escorted out of Saugus High School after reports of a shooting in Santa Clarita, Calif.

But building a gun from a kit isn’t easy, and recent California laws make it harder for those legally prohibited from having guns. Matthew Larosiere, who has built guns from raw metal blocks, said even a kit-build would be quite a challenge for the inexperienced, let alone a teenager.

“I can say the 1911 kit build is not for the faint of heart, or wallet,” said Larosiere, legal policy director for the Firearms Policy Coalition, a gun-rights group. “The 1911 kit build is something that would take me, a skilled and highly equipped person, many, many hours to complete. I’d be shocked to see a teenager perform it.”

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said it’s unclear who actually built the gun used in the shooting, which remains under investigation, and when it was built. The 16-year-old boy’s father, an avid hunter, died in 2017. Neighbors said they often saw him work on guns or reload ammunition in his garage.

Villanueva said the father had six guns registered to him. But he struggled with drinking and police seized and destroyed his guns in 2016 after detaining him for a mental health check. Villanueva said he was no longer legally allowed to have firearms.

“He became a prohibited possessor,” Villanueva said in an interview with ABC TV.

But when deputies searched the home, Villanueva said, they found another kit-built ghost gun, in addition to the one used in the Nov. 14 school shooting that left the gunman and two other students dead and three others injured.

The sheriff and others in law enforcement said they have seen the untraceable weapons turn up more and more in crimes, including on a convicted felon who fatally shot a California Highway Patrol officer in Southern California with an unregistered kit-built AR-15 style rifle in August.

A mentally unstable Tehama County man barred by a judge’s protective order from possessing firearms used a home-built AR-15-style unregistered rifle to kill five people in 2017, and a man who killed five people in 2013 at Santa Monica College used a similar weapon.

FILE - In this Aug. 1, 2018, file photo, Cody Wilson, with Defense Distributed, holds a 3D-printed gun called the Liberator at his shop, in Austin, Texas.

“That is one of the challenges in law enforcement today,” Villanueva said. “Congress and state legislatures enact all these crimes about gun registration, but now the gun industry is creating a way to just bypass the entire thing by creating a mechanism to manufacture weapons yourself.”

The 1911 style pistol used in the high school shooting is a more than century-old design based on the service sidearm for U.S. troops from World War I through the Vietnam War and into the 1980s. It remains one of the most popular and revered pistols of all time, and most of today’s manufacturers market a version of it. The sheriff lamented the ease at which they can be built from kit parts.

“They’re sold at gun shows, for example,” Villanueva said in the interview. “You can buy them online. They’re sold as a kit and then you can legally buy it, assemble the weapon yourself and then you have a gun that is not registered and no one knows you have it, and that is very dangerous. The information, unfortunately, is available on YouTube.”

Gun-control groups echoed the sentiment and called for more regulation.

“The bottom line is that ghost guns are incredibly dangerous and there is no reason why the parts are available at the click of a button,” said Nick Suplina, managing director for law and policy at Everytown for Gun Safety.

But putting together an 80% gun kit isn’t as easy as assembling Legos.

Chula Vista online retailer sells 80% pistol kits, but they start at around $950 and some top $2,000. By comparison, a modern .45 pistol like a Glock 21 retails for about $630. The company declined to comment, but its website says an adult signature is required to receive shipments by mail.

Police seized this gun, which is referred to as a "ghost gun," in November. It was assembled via parts ordered online and didn't have a serial number, police said.

The raw parts then must be machined using specialized tools before they can be assembled into a working firearm. A broaching machine to thin the frame and cut rail grooves will set a builder back $290.

What’s more, recent California law aimed at cracking down on ghost guns requires as of July 2018 anyone who manufactures or assembles a firearm to apply to the Department of Justice for a unique serial number or identifying mark.

Starting this year, the law requires anyone in possession of a gun without a serial number as of July 2018 to apply for a serial number.

For teenagers, other recent law changes would pose a further frustration. Those younger than 21 are now prohibited from buying rifles and shotguns in California, and federal law bars purchases of handguns by those under 21. California law also prohibits retailers from selling ammunition to those under 18.

Gun-rights advocates like Larosiere say the ease or difficulty of home-building a gun shouldn’t be used to justify more laws.

“Focusing on the difficulty of a particular firearm build contains with it the pernicious suggestion that, were it easy, it would somehow be OK to regulate,” Larosiere said.

“It is, and always has been, legal for ordinary adults to make firearms for their own personal use. These people tend to be dedicated hobbyists. Home-built firearms have been around as long as our nation, and today in a country of 300 million people, we rarely ever see them used in crime.”