As the gold-plated gun burst through the driver’s side window of the black Ford Mustang he had just pulled over, the first thought San Jose Police Officer Mel Dunn had was, "That’s a really nice gun." It was 3:23 in the morning on March 12, 2016, and Dunn and two fellow officers had stopped the Mustang in connection to a nearby shooting. Then, rounds began flying in their direction.
"I get down and return fire, and I’m thinking, 'Wow, that’s a rifle and we only got handguns right now,'" Dunn recounted to NBC Bay Area.
The officers survived the incident unscathed, and the driver was arrested after being wounded in the shootout. Officers later learned the gun fired by the driver was what’s commonly known as a "ghost gun," a homemade firearm without a serial number that can be assembled with parts purchased online or at a sporting goods store without subjecting the builder to a background check.
An Investigation by NBC Bay Area in partnership with NBC San Diego, NBC Los Angeles, and the non-profit journalists at The Trace found that law enforcement agencies across California are recovering record numbers of ghost guns. According to several ATF sources, 30 percent of all guns now recovered by agents in communities throughout California are homemade, un-serialized firearms, known on the street as “ghost guns.”
"This is not just something for enthusiasts. This has become something for people that are actual practitioners of violence," said Graham Barlowe, the resident agent in charge at the ATF’s Sacramento field office.
Ghost guns can be assembled with parts sold by dozens of companies that create nearly completed firearms – known as “80 percent receivers.” Those parts require no background check to sell and can easily be turned into a fully functioning firearm with some basic knowledge and tools.
Building homemade firearms mostly began as a hobby for enthusiasts, but ghost guns are now a popular choice for gangs and people prohibited from legally purchasing a gun, according to Barlowe. Because ghost guns are untraceable and subvert the normal background check process, they can sell for four or five times the price of a comparable serialized gun sold through a licensed dealer.
"I don’t want to be an alarmist, but this industry will continue to evolve, and we will continue to see a segment of people out there that want these products who are criminals," Barlowe said.
As ghost guns proliferate across California, lawmakers and police are scrambling to understand the scale of the problem, let alone remedy it. In 2016, the state Legislature passed a law requiring residents to register homemade weapons with law enforcement. A separate requirement outlawed the possession of unregistered ghost guns.
But records obtained by The Trace and NBC indicate that the law has had little effect. Compliance with the law is low, and prosecutors have never brought charges under the new statute.
State law enforcement officials told the Trace and NBC that the law is a low priority for prosecutors and police. Assemblymember Mike Gipson, whose district includes the city of Compton and the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, two of California’s most violent areas, conceded that the law lacks teeth, adding that the current law is entirely based on an “honor system.”
Earlier this year, Assemblymember Gipson proposed a new bill, AB 879, which would require background checks to purchase certain gun parts, including 80 percent lower receivers. He says the paper trail will provide an investigative resource for law enforcement if a ghost gun falls into the wrong hands.
"We have to make sure that our laws are advancing as our technology advances in this country," Gipson said.
But not everyone is in favor of new regulations. Bob, a firearms enthusiast who’s built his own guns for years in the Central Valley, said he understands the need for some regulation, but hopes lawmakers don’t go too far. He asked NBC Bay Area not to reveal his last name.
"Some of the laws they have churned out of Sacramento are nonsensical to us within the firearm community," Bob said. As for Gipson’s proposed bill: "That’s just going to create a bigger headache for us trying to follow the laws."
Bob said he’s followed California’s rules requiring him to serialize his homemade firearms. But he takes issue with the term “ghost gun,” which he said makes the community who build their own guns sound sinister.
But there is a growing black market element. California law enforcement officers are encountering ghost guns made by criminals who build them in their basement, as well as organized groups who churn out untraceable guns by the hundreds.
"We’ve seen machine shops where they are lining them up and completing them in 20-minute intervals, with three or four machines going at once," said ATF’s Barlowe.
Bob said this type of behavior gives the entire community a bad name.
"That person (creating these guns illegally) is taking advantage of the freedom given to the rest of us," Bob said. "That that makes the rest of us who want to follow the law and want to do things right, that makes the rest of us look bad."
California police records show that ghost guns have been recently recovered in homicides, robberies, active shooter incidents, and domestic violence cases. In July 2014, bank robbers in Stockton took three hostages on a high-speed chase with police. The rolling gun battle ended with one hostage and two suspects killed. Police recovered a homemade AK-47 at the scene. A year later, a 21-year-old man shot and killed a 19-year-old woman before killing himself at his home in Walnut Creek. The former Stanford engineering student had assembled pieces purchased online into a working gun.
In several cases reviewed in detail by NBC and The Trace, perpetrators specifically sought out ghost guns because they knew they would fail a background check if they tried to buy a serialized gun through the legal process. In 2013, John Zawahari assembled an un-serialized AR-15 after failing a screening at a gun store. He used the weapon to kill five people on a college campus in Santa Monica. Four years later, in 2017, Kevin Neal, a 44-year-old cannabis farmer with a criminal record barring him from gun ownership, went online and purchased the parts to build an AR-15. In a 25-minute shooting spree across Tehama County, he killed five people and injured 18 more.
"We work so hard in ensuring that individuals pass background checks and are responsible gun owners," said Eddie Garcia, Chief of the San Jose Police Department. "And that really gets thrown out the door when you have individuals that can just make a homemade gun."
Despite incidents like these, there’s no uniform system in place to track how many ghost guns are seized or recovered at crime scenes.
The Trace and NBC requested ghost gun seizure data from more than a dozen law enforcement agencies across California. Most departments, including Los Angeles and Chula Vista, said they do not track recoveries of unserialized weapons at all. The departments that do keep tabs on unserialized weapons reported marked increases. In Oceanside, police recovered 19 ghost guns in 2018, a 280 percent increase over the previous year.
State law enforcement sources say that because of a lack of funding and training, plus dated software, police are ill-equipped to track recovered ghost guns, and that the process is laborious and confusing.
Tracking ghost guns isn’t just a problem at the local level. Congressional and ATF sources told The Trace and NBC that the bureau does not document recoveries on a national scale. Spokespeople for ATF field divisions in Los Angeles and Sacramento said that approximately 30 percent of all recoveries made by agents in many communities are un-serialized weapons. But the ATF can’t provide specific data beyond that.
"There’s no way for us to track this," Barlowe said. "Law enforcement databases that are in place don’t really allow for an accurate accounting of what law enforcement is brining into evidence."