On May 16, 2013, Sharod Gibbons pulled his 1997 white Infiniti into a parking lot at Watt Avenue and Arden Way, near Arden Middle School.
Gibbons got out and walked to the back of his car to show off a loaded AK-47 assault rifle and a Remington 700 bolt-action rifle to a prospective buyer, according to a federal agent’s court affidavit.
After some chit-chat, the two agreed on a price, and the buyer handed over $2,500 in cash.
That was the second firearms transaction between Gibbons and his buyer. The buyer was a government informant who eventually would pay $32,800 in cash for 16 rifles and six pistols in various locations around Sacramento, according to the affidavit by Jerry Donn, a special agent for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The undercover operation marked the start of a new effort by federal agents to tackle what they say is a growing black market for weapons being manufactured and sold throughout the region. While the San Bernardino terrorist attack and other mass shootings have brought cries for greater restrictions on gun sales by firearms dealers, these homemade guns change hands with no government oversight of any kind.
They are known as “ghost guns.”
Assembled in homes and shops, they are sold without serial numbers or other identifying features. Federal officials say hundreds of such weapons and silencers have been seized in a series of ongoing undercover operations.
It is legal, and relatively easy – especially for someone with machinist skills – to purchase and assemble all the parts needed for an AR-15 rifle. But it is a felony to sell or trade such a weapon.
“We’ve had more of these cases in Northern California than in other parts of the country,” said Graham Barlowe, special agent in charge of the ATF’s Sacramento office. “There are a lot of firearms enthusiasts in Northern California, so it may be that the principals found each other more often. All the elements are here: demand, know-how and cross-pollination of enthusiasts and criminals.”
Gun enthusiasts dispute that there is a large-scale problem with such weapons in California, noting there are 40 million to 50 million guns in the state, and the arrests being announced reflect a tiny fraction of that figure.
“It’s really a relatively minor occurrence when that happens,” said Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California. “People have been manufacturing their own guns under federal law for decades. It’s perfectly legal for you to manufacture a firearm for your own personal use.”
But ATF officials say some people are drawn to the idea that there is easy money to be made in the sales of such weapons. They say the phenomenon began to take off following the December 2012 massacre of 26 people, many of them small children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
“A fear arose in the firearms community that the Obama administration was going to propose a ban on assault rifles,” Barlowe said. “There was a run on them. The shelves were bare.”
The AR-15 – a semi-automatic rifle that is the civilian equivalent of the M-16 – already was one of the most popular weapons in the country. The perceived threat that they might be restricted from the marketplace made them even more popular.
“It became chic to have one,” Barlowe said. “It became what a hot rod is to a car enthusiast. Suppliers of gun parts began to cater to this clientele.”
The AR-15, the same type of rifle used in the San Bernardino attacks earlier this month, is legal to purchase and own in California. Online stores sell various accessories for them, including vinyl decals of the American flag and the motto “Don’t Tread on Me.”
“It’s the Barbie doll of guns,” Paredes said. “You can dress it up for whatever purpose you want, for self-defense, for hunting varmints, for target shooting.”
Some buyers and sellers found a way to exchange such guns without dealing with the paperwork, background checks and registration associated with weapons purchases. They turned to what are popularly referred to as “80 percent lower receivers.”
These are the unfinished lower portions of AR-15s, or “blanks.” They are essentially blocks of metal or Kevlar reinforced polymer that can be ordered online for less than $100.
A hobbyist with the right tools can drill out the holes and cavity spaces in the lower receiver and legally acquire the other parts to assemble an AR-15. Once the receiver is drilled out, it is considered a firearm by the government, even if nothing else is attached to it.
The tools involved can be as simple as a drill press, hand drill or Dremel, a hand-held rotary tool that can accept different bits.
“These are all fairly simple and affordable tools that can be obtained and operated by nearly anyone,” Donn, the ATF agent, wrote in an affidavit. “In most cases, they are readily available at most hardware/home improvement stores.”
Gunmakers who want to assemble multiple weapons and sell them illegally sometimes use much more sophisticated means, Donn noted, including the use of an automated drill press run by a computer with software that precisely drills out the blanks.
After such a rifle is fully assembled, there is no requirement to register it. There also is no legal way to sell it.
“You cannot sell it at all, and when you die, it dies,” Paredes said. “You can’t give it away, and you can’t sell it.”
Despite that restriction, the ATF says many people are selling their ghost guns.
“Unlike a firearm manufactured by a licensed manufacturer, these firearms are completely untraceable,” Donn wrote. “They have no serial number. They have no manufacturer identification.
“Further, these firearms are sold by unlicensed individuals with no regard to the prohibited states of the purchaser, or the legality of the firearm itself.”
Once, criminals would have risked bringing such weapons into California from neighboring states where they could be legally sold. But now, many are instead connecting with hobbyists who can make the weapons themselves, federal officials said.
“Criminals with knowledge of the firearms community found these hobbyists to be a source of supply,” Barlowe said. “Trips to the Reno gun show transitioned to unfinished lower receivers.
“It was less expensive and more convenient than going out of state and enlisting straw buyers; and a lot more secure, since these weapons are not registered and have no serial numbers. It’s like they don’t exist.”
Undercover agents buying firearms in sting operations have swept up hundreds of homemade weapons as well as conventionally manufactured weapons being sold illegally by people not licensed as firearms dealers.
In one case, filed in Sacramento federal court in October, five men were charged with making and selling firearms without a license. Officials said the investigation involved 24 undercover purchases of 67 AR-15 rifles, pistols and revolvers, and 38 silencers.
Agents executing search warrants seized another 71 firearms and 62 silencers, including many that had no markings or serial numbers.
In a case filed in federal court on Dec. 10, agents described a 14-month undercover operation featuring purchases of weapons at S&S Tires in Citrus Heights, and leading to charges against the store’s owner, Mohammad Javed, and an associate, Alphonso Harris II.
During the operation, agents purchased 44 weapons, court documents state. During a February raid on the tire shop and Javed’s and Harris’ homes, they seized 13 pistols, two that had previously been reported stolen; one shotgun; three silencers; three AK-47s; three AR-15s, and more than 1,200 rounds of ammunition.
Paredes says the cases federal officials have touted recently, including some with dozens of weapons and silencers laid out on display for the media, are the exception in California, and that his group supports going after illegal gun sellers.
“There will always be people who break the law, and with everything they need to be rooted out and brought to justice,” he said.
The ATF counters that it has seized hundreds of weapons in recent cases and that, their very nature – unmarked, unregistered, untraceable – make telling how many are being used in crimes virtually impossible.
“It’s hard to know the true extent of their use by criminals,” Barlowe said. “All law enforcement databases rely on serial numbers to track firearms and monitor trends.
“We’re back to the days when we had to call local departments and ask them what they are finding. And then you’ve got to find the right person who has first-hand information about a particular crime. It’s labor intensive.”