Ghost Guns: The build-it-yourself firearms that skirt most federal gun laws and are virtually untraceable

Under federal law, they require no background check or serial number, making ghost guns a growing weapon of choice for criminals.

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As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps through the country, panic and fear have caused a run on hand sanitizer, toilet paper and guns. Retailers tell us they have never seen such a surge in firearms sales. One kind of weapon that has been selling out is a build-it-yourself firearm known as a ghost gun because it skirts most federal gun laws. There's no background check and no serial number, making ghost guns invisible to police and almost impossible to trace when used in a crime. We were surprised that it's all perfectly legal. After a year and a half of reporting, we discovered that ghost guns, once mainly popular with gun enthusiasts, have also become a weapon of choice for criminals, manufactured by gangs and used in mass shootings.

We sought out America's top gun cops, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the ATF, to find out exactly what a ghost gun is. Thomas Chittum, ATF's assistant director of field operations, gave us rare access to its West Virginia weapons repository and told us the latest additions here are ghost guns. 

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Comparing a ghost gun and a regularly manufactured gun

Bill Whitaker: What's the difference between these two guns?

Thomas Chittum: Well, this is a firearm that was manufactured by a licensed manufacturer. The law requires them to mark them with certain markings, including a serial number. This is not marked. No background check is completed when you purchase it. It's made at home by somebody using commonly available hand tools.

Bill Whitaker: So, they both do the same thing.

Thomas Chittum: They both shoot.  

As Chittum says, usually, if you bought a gun at a store, it would have a traceable serial number and you would need to pass a background check under federal law. A ghost gun can circumvent all of that, because it's put together from unfinished, untraceable parts. 

Bill Whitaker: It's virtually invisible to you and government.

Thomas Chittum: It also makes it challenging to keep it outta the hands of people who are not allowed to possess firearms.

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Bryan Muehlberger

Bryan Muehlberger: Up to that day, I never heard the term ghost gun. So I didn't even know what that was.

Bryan Muehlberger found out one day last November. There had been a mass shooting at his daughter's high school and 15-year-old Gracie was murdered. 
 
Bryan Muehlberger: They bring in one of the head doctors. And just like you see on the movies, he sits across from you with that real quiet kinda solemn stare, right at you. And I just-- I just remember sayin', you know, like, "Please, no. Don't-- don't tell me the bad news, please." 

This was the aftermath at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, California. A typical Thursday morning disrupted, the quad littered with backpacks after students dropped everything and fled for their lives. That's where Gracie was waiting for friends before class. 

Bryan Muehlberger: She was about as close as I am to you right now. Shot her right through the backpack and right through her chest, And thankfully he didn't aim at the back of her head. You know, at least we got to see her face one more time.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva arrived at the scene not long after the shots were fired.   

Bill Whitaker: This kid shows up at school. What happened?

Alex Villanueva: He shows up at school. He has a backpack. His mom had-- had packed the lunch for him. But in the backpack was also a .45 auto that was loaded. 

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Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva

Carrying that loaded ghost gun was Nathaniel Berhow, a high school junior. In addition to Gracie, he shot and killed Dominic Blackwell and wounded three other students. He saved the last round for himself. 

Bill Whitaker: He's 16 years old?

Alex Villanueva: Uh-huh (AFFIRM). Just turned-- that was his birthday. 

Bill Whitaker: How does a 16-year-old get his hands on a gun? He's-- he's underage.

Alex Villanueva: Underage, but his father was a gun enthusiast and was in possession of a lot of weapons. They were ultimately confiscated because he was detained for psychiatric evaluation.

Bill Whitaker: So he-- the father was not supposed to have guns.

Alex Villanueva: And all the weapons were removed legally at the time. 

Sheriff Villanueva suspects that's when the father turned to ghost guns and his son got his hands on one. Six months later, the Saugus investigation is still ongoing. 

Alex Villanueva: This is the actual weapon that was used in the Saugus shooting. It is a ghost gun. It was assembled. We don't know by who. But we believe it was the father of the suspect and it came into possession then of the shooter himself.  

Ghost gun parts can be used to fabricate a handgun or even an AR-15. The parts are widely available across the country in stores and online. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, they have been flying off the shelves. They're shipped right to your door. Not much harder than ordering a pizza.

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The gun kit bought by 60 Minutes

We bought a kit online for $575 that has everything you need to make a 9 millimeter handgun. It came in parts, like IKEA furniture but for firearms, and even includes the drill bits you need to put the gun together in the comfort of your own home. Why is it so easy to buy? Because federal gun law only regulates a part, called a frame or a lower receiver. But until you drill out holes and file down a bit, in the eyes of federal law, it's just a hunk of metal or in this case plastic.

YouTube videos will show you step-by-step how to turn that piece of plastic or metal into a gun.

Alex Villanueva: So you have pretty much it's open season, anyone who is a prohibited person that wants to arm themselves now has a very easy way to do it.

But, if you're a felon or judged mentally unfit for example, federal law says you're not supposed to have any kind of firearm. Build a ghost gun? No one knows you have it. 

Ironically, California has some of the strictest state gun laws in the U.S., and yet it's the epicenter of this growing problem.  

Bill Whitaker: Where on your list of worries do these ghost guns fall?

Alex Villanueva: Well, along with terrorism, active shooter, this is w-- way up there on the list.

Villanueva oversees the largest sheriff's office in the country, and he says over the last year, the number of ghost guns turning up in LA county investigations has jumped by 50%.  

Alex Villanueva: Domestic assault, assault with a deadly weapon, distribution of child pornography, possession a child pornography, armed with a ghost gun. Domestic violence, domestic violence, assault with a deadly weapon, drug deal.

Bill Whitaker: Wow. 

It's an epidemic that has blindsided police across the country. Without a serial number or paperwork, ghost guns are very difficult for law enforcement to trace or track. Which is why Thomas Chittum and the ATF are struggling to get a handle on the problem.  

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Thomas Chittum, the ATF's assistant director of field operations, walks with correspondent Bill Whitaker through the ATF's West Virginia weapons repository

Bill Whitaker:  How many of these guns are on the streets, you have no idea? 

Thomas Chittum: Uh, no, I have no idea. 

Bill Whitaker: And how many crimes are being committed by these guns, you have no idea? 

Thomas Chittum: Well, not with precision. They still represent a minority of the firearms that are being used in crimes. But we do see that they're increasing significantly and rapidly. 

Bill Whitaker: So you have no idea how many guns are out there, and you don't know who has them. 

Thomas Chittum: Uh, right.

Here's what our reporting found, contacting local and national law enforcement over the course of a year and a half: at least 38 states and Washington D.C. have seen criminal cases involving ghost guns. 

There were at least four mass shootings, violent police shootouts, high-profile busts of gangs making and selling ghost guns on the street, and cases involving terrorism and white supremacists.

But Dimitrios Karras says that's not his clientele at all.

He is a former Marine and one of the first to get into the business of selling ghost gun parts in California ten years ago.  

Dimitrios Karras: Between 300,000 and 500,000 individual units have passed through my hands. 

Bill Whitaker: Over what period of time? 

Dimitrios Karras: Last ten years.

Bill Whitaker: It sounds like a lot to me.

Dimitrios Karras: If I was--

Bill Whitaker: That-- that's just from your store? 

Dimitrios Karras: That's just-- that's just from what-- what I've been involved in. There's a lot of companies that are now in this industry and there are multiple millions of these things that have been created throughout the country at this point.

Bill Whitaker: So who is buying these kits?

Dimitrios Karras: It's guys in hardhats. It's also the people who like to work with their hands and do this sort of thing anyway. 

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Dimitrios Karras

Alex Villanueva: I'd say hogwash to that entire idea.

Bill Whitaker: Hogwash. 

Alex Villanueva: Hogwash. Absolute hogwash. The only (LAUGH) people that are interested in that are not enthusiasts into, you know, tinkerin' around with machines.

Bill Whitaker: A hobbyist.

Alex Villanueva: No. They're not hobbyists. These are people that should never have a firearm. And that's how they found a way to get one. 

Karras insists the store where he now works, which touts just how invisible their ghost gun parts are, has safeguards to prevent ghost gun parts from getting into the wrong hands.  

Bill Whitaker: And what are they?

Dimitrios Karras: Um, I'm not gonna get too much into it because it would undermine our ability to use them. 

Bill Whitaker: Do you ever worry that someone who's buying one of these kits might have a mental illness or, you know, be planning to use an AR-15 for something that's horrible, unimaginable?

Dimitrios Karras: Does a car salesman worry that-- someone might take a car that they've sold to them and drive it through a crowd of people?

Bill Whitaker: So you see them as the same?

Dimitrios Karras: I do. 

Karras's home state, California, is phasing in a law to regulate ghost gun parts like regular firearms. Three other states and the District of Columbia have passed their own restrictions. But Villanueva says that's not enough.

Alex Villanueva: We need national laws, or federal, from Congress that covers a total ban on the creation or the selling of these ghost gun kits.

Bill Whitaker: State-by-state is not gonna do it? 

Alex Villanueva: It doesn't because then you can just defeat it by going to another state. 

In today's political climate, new federal gun control measures seem unlikely.

So that leaves it to the ATF to determine what is and is not a gun. Currently, ATF says a ghost gun not a gun.  

But the ATF has changed its thinking on similar issues recently. After the 2017 massacre in Las Vegas, the ATF and the Department of Justice banned bump stocks, an accessory that turned semi-automatic weapons into machine guns.

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Former acting director of the ATF, Thomas Brandon

Former acting director of the ATF, Thomas Brandon, helped implement that change and was ready to recommend to his bosses at the Department of Justice that they reclassify certain ghost gun kits, like the one we ordered, as firearms because of how easy they are to put together.

Bill Whitaker: You were alarmed at what you were seeing?

Thomas Brandon: Yeah. And so I said, "Well, right now we have a public safety concern."

Bill Whitaker: You thought that the ATF should reclassify these kits as firearms? 

Thomas Brandon: Yes as the head of the agency at the time-- I said, "I'm gonna do everything I can for public safety with my team." If you wanted to buy a kit and make your own gun, it's just gonna hav-- have a serial number on it.

Thomas Brandon retired last spring before any action was taken. We asked the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives if there was any follow-up on Brandon's plans and were told, "ATF routinely reviews our practices, procedures, and determinations; however, it would be inappropriate to comment on internal discussions. " Thomas Chittum says the ATF is doing everything it can.

Bill Whitaker: Is this just one of those political hot potatoes that nobody wants to touch? 

Thomas Chittum: Well, gun law's one of the most divisive topics in America. And ATF sometimes finds itself in the middle. 

As for Saugus, it was the first high school mass shooting with a ghost gun. Bryan Muehlberger, a pistol owner himself, says if something isn't done about ghost guns, it won't be the last. 

Bryan Muehlberger: I'm not against owning guns, but I also believe strongly that this is a serious problem that's occurring that no one knew about. So I just feel like something needs to be done. It's just-- it's become too easy.

Produced by Nichole Marks and David M. Levine. Associate producers, Michelle St. John, Emilio Almonte and LaCrai Mitchell. Edited by Richard Buddenhagen.