CHULA VISTA, Calif. — Max Mendoza’s parents awakened just after dawn to the echoing clap-pop of a gunshot, and ran from their bedroom to find their 12-year-old son propped against the couch, eyes wide in pain, terror and surprise.
“It’s the real one. It’s the real one,” Max whispered, clutching his chest, seemingly astounded that a weapon resembling a toy, a cheap-looking brown-and-black pistol, could end his life in an instant.
But it did. Investigators in this city just south of San Diego are still trying to determine exactly what happened on that Saturday morning in July — if the seventh-grader accidentally shot himself, or if his 15-year-old friend, who the police say had brought the weapon into the apartment, discharged it while showing it off.
What is certain is the kind of weapon that killed Max. It was a “ghost gun.”
Ghost guns — untraceable firearms without serial numbers, assembled from components bought online — are increasingly becoming the lethal weapon of easy access for those legally barred from buying or owning guns around the country. The criminal underground has long relied on stolen weapons with sanded-off serial numbers, but ghost guns represent a digital-age upgrade, and they are especially prevalent in coastal blue states with strict firearm laws.
Nowhere is that truer than in California, where their proliferation has reached epidemic proportions, according to local and federal law enforcement officials in Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego and San Francisco. Over the past 18 months, the officials said, ghost guns accounted for 25 to 50 percent of firearms recovered at crime scenes. The vast majority of suspects caught with them were legally prohibited from having guns.
“I’ve been on the force for 30 years next month, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Lt. Paul Phillips of the San Diego Police Department, who this year organized the force’s first unit dedicated to homemade firearms. By the beginning of October, he said, the department had recovered almost 400 ghost guns, about double the total for all of 2020 with nearly three months to go in the year.
Law enforcement officials are not exactly sure why their use is taking off. But they believe it is basically a matter of a new, disruptive technology gradually gaining traction in a market, then rocketing up when buyers catch on. This isn’t just happening on the West Coast. Since January 2016, about 25,000 privately made firearms have been confiscated by local and federal law enforcement agencies nationwide.
Ghost guns, and the niche industry that produces them, have flourished because of a loophole in federal regulation: The parts used to build “privately made firearms” are classified as components, not actual guns, which means that online buyers are not required to undergo background checks or register the weapons. That makes them a powerful magnet for those banned from gun ownership, including convicted felons, domestic abusers subject to orders of protection, the mentally ill and children, like the teenager who brought his gun into Max Mendoza’s apartment, according to the police.
Closing that loophole is the focus of new regulations ordered by President Biden — the most prominent surviving plank of his effort to combat gun violence, announced after a string of mass shootings this year. The rules would essentially treat ghost guns as traditional firearms — requiring core components to be engraved with serial numbers, imposing background checks and requiring online purchasers to pick up their orders at federally licensed gun shops.
Law enforcement officials in California think that the rules would do much to keep ghost guns out of the hands of criminals and children. “It’s definitely going to stop some of the most obvious problems,” said the Los Angeles city attorney, Mike Feuer, who is suing a leading gun-parts vendor.
But the new rules, which are likely to be challenged in court by gun rights groups, are not expected to be implemented until early next year, after a lengthy public comment process. And gun control groups have raised doubts about the robustness of enforcement by federal firearms regulators.
What’s more, while the rules would create a set of legal roadblocks, law enforcement officials say the extralegal pipeline for parts is sure to adapt and thrive. There is a huge surfeit of supplies in circulation, enough to supply dealers who sell pre-assembled guns, via social media platforms or the dark web, for years. At the same time, the increasing availability of 3-D printers, which can create the plastic and metal components of guns, has opened a new backdoor source of illegal weapons for gangs and drug dealers who would otherwise have to steal them.
“This isn’t going away,” Mr. Feuer said.
Ghost guns have been used in two recent shootings of police officers in California — the June 2020 killing of two officers in the Bay Area by a far-right extremist, according to prosecutors, and the grievous wounding of two Los Angeles County deputies as they sat in their patrol car last September. Other ghost gun shootings have appeared to be terrifyingly random, like the killing of a hotel parking attendant in downtown San Diego last spring by a man, the police say, who was already wanted on weapons charges.
But the epidemic seems to be disproportionately affecting young people, as purchasers, perpetrators and victims. Two years ago, a 16-year-old student walked into Saugus High School, north of Los Angeles, and killed two teenagers with a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol assembled from a kit before turning the weapon on himself — a case that, more than any other, elevated the issue to national attention.
Max Mendoza’s death, by contrast, flickered on the local TV news in San Diego for a weekend. His parents, Aida Mendoza and William Tagle, returned home after the news vans had driven away and the police had scoured the apartment for other weapons.
All they found was Max’s broken BB gun. He had hidden it, Mr. Tagle said, because he was not allowed to bring violent toys into the home.
A Deadly Loophole
The decades-long debate over gun control in Washington revolves around the regulation of traditional firearms. Ghost guns pose a more elemental question: What makes a gun a gun?
Every semiautomatic weapon consists of two main parts: the movable upper “slide,” which sits on the barrel, and the “receiver” or “frame” — the lower part to which almost everything else, including the trigger and magazine, can be attached and made functional after drilling a few holes and filing a groove into an unfinished, factory-produced frame.
Under federal law, any frame or receiver considered 80 percent finished is a functional firearm subject to the same regulations as a fully assembled gun. If it is less than 80 percent finished, it is not subject to the same federal safeguards.
Even so, an experienced amateur can make the minor modifications needed to turn it into a working firearm in less than an hour.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives judges each component on a case-by-case basis, using specific, if subjective, technical standards, illustrated with annotated photographs on the agency’s website. But critics have long accused the agency — hobbled and hamstrung by the gun lobby — of failing to aggressively investigate companies that sell kits with everything necessary to quickly assemble a ghost gun.
“I think a lot of us thought this was a problem that we had 10 years to deal with, when it was, in reality, more like two,” said David Chipman, a former A.T.F. agent who was withdrawn as Mr. Biden’s nominee to head the bureau in September amid fierce opposition from the gun lobby.
“This is the biggest threat in the country right now,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group that has tracked the rapid growth of the gun kit industry — from 26 online retailers in 2014 to about 80 last year.
The A.T.F.’s acting deputy director, Thomas Chittum, said that while the agency took the issue seriously, ghost guns represented a tricky regulatory challenge, because “the law does not draw a bright line around the definition of what a firearm is.”
Mr. Chipman had pledged to make the issue a priority, and his failed nomination has left gun control advocates wondering how energetically the agency will enforce the new regulations. Indeed, many A.T.F. employees own firearms, and several staff members, speaking on the condition of anonymity, feared the rule could infringe on the Second Amendment rights of hobbyists, who have not been required to register homemade guns unless they intend to sell them.
Nonetheless, the A.T.F. has worked on dozens of ghost-gun busts with local police departments, and has recently cracked down on Polymer80, the Nevada-based industry leader whose weapons accounted for the majority of ghost guns found at California crime scenes in 2019.
The company sells a wide range of components online, including kits to build AR-15-type semiautomatic rifles. But the A.T.F. focused on one of its most popular: the $590 “Buy, Build and Shoot” kit that contained almost everything needed to make a functional Glock-style pistol.
Last December, the A.T.F. raided the company’s headquarters near Reno, citing a failure by the company to submit the kits for regulatory approval. The application for the search warrant included an affidavit from an informant who assembled one of the company’s kits in 21 minutes.
Polymer80’s lawyer and a company representative did not respond to questions. At the time of the raid, a representative said the business had complied with federal law.
The raid has not yet resulted in charges. But the company has stopped selling the kits, which was the main intention of the action, according to two federal officials with knowledge of the case.
Crimes and Pastimes
Steven R. Ely, a 69-year-old retired high school teacher, had never really heard about ghost guns until he was almost killed by one.
A little after 10 p.m. on April 24, he rounded a corner in San Diego’s bustling Gaslamp Quarter, heard four or five loud claps and felt something plink against his right side, like a fleck of gravel.
Mr. Ely stuck a hand inside his shirt, reassured, momentarily, to find no blood. Then he looked again and saw a tiny, spreading patch of red. His knees gave way. He would spend weeks in the hospital, losing 40 pounds and much of his sunny confidence that he would enjoy an active retirement, on a surfboard, into his 80s or 90s.
“I never saw the guy who shot me,” Mr. Ely said. He had just retired, was enjoying a great life, he said, “and this happens.”
Mr. Ely was among the victims of a flash of carnage that began, investigators say, when a man named Travis Sarreshteh, 32, walked up to a hotel parking attendant, Justice Boldin, and, without warning, shot him with a Polymer80 pistol. Mr. Boldin, 28, a former college baseball player, died almost instantly.
Then Mr. Sarreshteh, who pleaded not guilty after being charged with murder, brushed shoulders with a group of friends from New Jersey. He wheeled and fired, slightly wounding two of the men, the police say. A third man, Vincent Gazzani, was injured in the arm, lung, spleen and stomach. Mr. Ely was probably hit by that volley.
“I was sure I was going to die — I couldn’t catch my breath,” said Mr. Gazzani, who was saved by a former Israeli Army medic who applied a field dressing from a napkin, assuring him he was “going to make it” as he waited for paramedics to arrive.
What to Know About ‘Ghost Guns’
Deadly and untraceable. Earlier this year, President Biden announced a set of initial steps to address gun violence, including a significant crackdown on “ghost guns.” Here’s what to know about the weapons:
The police are still not sure how Mr. Sarreshteh may have gotten the weapon, a recurring theme in almost all ghost gun investigations. But obtaining a ghost gun, they say, allowed him to dodge a background check that would have revealed a significant criminal history, including a 2017 illegal weapons charge.
The shooting brought barely a ripple nationally. But it galvanized officials in San Diego.
“How could somebody who was barred from lawfully purchasing a firearm get a 9-millimeter gun and shoot five people in the middle of the street?” said Marni von Wilpert, a San Diego city councilwoman who pushed through a law banning guns without serial numbers, part of a wave of local legislation addressing the crisis.
Community leaders in some of the state’s violence-plagued urban neighborhoods have been sounding the alarm for the last couple of years, as teenagers snap up homemade guns for protection, or as emblems of toughness.
“People aren’t buying regular guns anymore,” said Antoine Towers, who works for an anti-violence program in Oakland. “Almost all the youngsters are using ghosts.”
Brian Muhammad, who works with at-risk young people in Stockton, said he recently asked a group of teenagers where they got their guns. “Did you drive to Vegas?” he asked, referring to Nevada’s looser gun laws. They looked at him as if he were crazy.
“Who would do that?” one of them replied. “You order them in pieces using your phone.”
In Oakland, a 17-year-old boy recently decided to arm himself after falling out with a friend who had a gun. He matter-of-factly described the process of assembling a ghost gun, munching on potato chips during an interview in his living room.
For weeks, the boy, whose name is being withheld at his family’s request, surfed websites and collected about $750 in parts from online retailers and private sellers. After some trial and error (one part did not fit the gun’s lower section), he built a working imitation Glock using how-to videos.
He said he also had guidance from several friends — who had built guns as “a good way to pass the time when you’re stuck at home” during the pandemic.
A Flooded Market
Early last year, Bryan Muehlberger, who lives north of Los Angeles, wanted to prove just how easily a minor could buy a gun kit online.
He ordered it using the name of his teenage daughter, Gracie, checking the boxes indicating that she was a legal buyer. The company (which he does not want to identify because it has his family’s personal information) processed the order without bothering to ensure that Gracie was over 21, as state law requires.
“I get a box in the mail, and it says ‘Gracie Muehlberger’ right there on the label,” he said in an interview, pausing to collect himself. “I was dumbstruck.”
Gracie Muehlberger is dead. She was killed by a ghost gun, at age 15, along with 14-year-old Dominic Blackwell, in the Saugus High School shooting.
Biden administration officials believe the new ghost gun regulations will put an end to the sale of similar kits, at least legally.
The country’s two most influential gun rights groups, the National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, have sharply criticized the rules, but have not campaigned heavily against them. Larry Keane, a top N.S.S.F. official, said he had “important concerns” that the regulations would hamper “lawful business activities,” and would not rule out legal action in the future.
Justice Department lawyers are more concerned, however, that harder-line groups will challenge the rules in federal court, arguing that only Congress, not the A.T.F., has the right to change the definition of a firearm.
In recent months, the Firearms Policy Coalition, a California-based nonprofit that opposes most gun regulations, sued to block ghost gun laws in several states, including Delaware, arguing that the rules violated the Second Amendment rights of Americans to “personally manufacture” guns for “self-defense in the home.”
Most of the law enforcement officers interviewed for this article were only vaguely aware of these regulatory shifts. Demand for ghost guns will remain high because obtaining a gun online, even illegally, is less risky than stealing one, they said.
Lt. Derrick J. Lew of the San Francisco Police Department believes criminals will shift to shadier avenues of supply, given the growing popularity of 3-D printing.
The market has become so competitive, he added, that kitchen-table vendors have begun offering add-ons like silencers and a device to make handguns fire at a faster rate. Money-back guarantees are also becoming more common.
The San Diego police are beginning to uncover larger operations, often connected to the drug trade. “You are starting to see people manufacturing on a much bigger scale — 20, 30 guns at a time,” said a sergeant in the gun unit, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he works undercover.
Profit is the main driver. Dealers buy $600 worth of parts, put them together, then sell guns for as much as $1,400. Customers are happy to pay a premium for an untraceable weapon, he said.
Ghost guns have a spectral anonymity, providing scant ballistic value to investigators. But there is one thing that sets them apart.
Though the bullets found in bodies and walls are unremarkable, detectives have noticed a telltale trait in the casings: The marks left by ghost guns’ firing pins are cruder than the imprints made by standard ones.
They look a bit like police badges.