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'Ghost Guns' Are Becoming A Big Problem In California. Here's Why

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A truck dumps approximately 3,500 confiscated guns to be destroyed into a pile at Gerdau Steel Mill on July 19, 2018 in Rancho Cucamonga, California. (David McNew/Getty Images)
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California officials are increasingly concerned that mass shooters and other criminals are using "ghost guns" as an end run around the state's strict gun laws.

One in three guns seized in California is homemade and has no serial number, according to federal firearms officials. Legally, this makes them all but invisible and extremely hard to track; hence the expression "ghost gun."

At a meeting this week of L.A. City Council's Public Safety Committee, police Captain Paul Espinosa told council members that ghost guns started appearing more frequently about six years ago.

The LA Times and several other news outlets reported just this week that a ghost gun was used in a shootout in Riverside that left one California Highway Patrol officer dead and two others injured.

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LAist could not independently confirm this, and the Riverside Police Department said Thursday that it had not yet completed analysis of the gun. A spokesman for the department would only say the gun used in the shooting was a rifle.

Still, the presence of these weapons has spooked law enforcement and spurred calls from gun violence prevention advocates for tighter regulations.

So how, exactly, do ghost guns come to be?

Here's a guide to ghost guns and why they're becoming a heated topic in the gun debate.

WHAT EXACTLY ARE THEY?

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A ghost gun doesn't have a serial number. That means it's not registered and law enforcement can't track it. Ghost guns use manufactured parts that you assemble yourself -- by ordering parts online from a legal website, from an underground gun network or even by 3D-printing them.

ARE GHOST GUNS LEGAL?

In California, it's legal to buy gun parts online and assemble your own gun -- no background check required.

If you assemble a gun, California law does require you to apply for a serial number to put on the gun. But this rule is hard to enforce.

HOW EASY IS IT TO BUILD A GUN?

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Easier than you might think.

"If you have some basic machining tools, you can put it together pretty easily," said independent firearms examiner and former LAPD forensic scientist Leonard Romero.

"It's just a matter of getting the parts."

Romero said it's legal to buy the unfinished body of a gun online -- known as the 80 percent lower receiver. This part of the gun is unregulated by federal firearms officials. You can flesh out the remaining 20 percent of the gun piecemeal.

"You're just picking up a pin here, a pin there, a trigger here, a trigger there," Romero said.

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You can purchase an 80 percent lower receiver online for well under $100.

ARE GHOST GUNS A PROBLEM IN CALIFORNIA?

Ghost guns have popped up in a number of high-profile shootings in California in recent years.

For example, the gunman who in 2013 killed five people and wounded four others at Santa Monica College used a homemade rifle without a serial number. He reportedly assembled the rifle after failing a background check to buy a gun legally.

The Trace found that ghost guns turned up not just in mass shootings, but also domestic violence cases, homicides and robberies.

WHAT'S BEING DONE TO REGULATE GHOST GUNS?

On Wednesday, L.A. City Councilman Mitch O'Farrell proposed creating a policy that would track where confiscated guns are coming from in response to the Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting that left four people dead, including the shooter, and 13 injured.

O'Farrell also proposed that LAPD report annually on the types of firearms seized by the city.

David Chipman from the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence said there needs to be stricter national laws on selling gun parts.

"If you want to build a gun, it should start with the receiver that has already been marked and serialized and sold from a gun store before you move on and buy parts online," he said.

Chipman said the fact that a third of guns recovered in California are homemade or untraceable means California's relatively strict gun laws are pushing people towards unregulated guns.

"It must not be easy to get a built gun as a criminal," he said.

He said there's a need to respond to this new threat that current gun laws don't address.

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