The gun used in last week’s shooting at Saugus High School was assembled from parts, a so-called ghost gun without a registration number, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva confirmed Thursday.
Sheriff’s homicide detectives are trying to determine who built the .45-caliber handgun, a 1911-model pistol. The weapon included a partially built receiver, meaning it did not contain a serial number.
Police and witnesses said 16-year-old Nathan Berhow came to school the morning of Nov. 14, removed the handgun from his backpack and opened fire in the Santa Clarita high school quad. Five students were shot, two of whom later died, before Berhow turned the weapon on himself. He died from his injury a day later.
Investigators say it’s unclear who assembled the kit gun, but they are examining Berhow’s electronic communications in an effort to find answers, officials said. The teen’s late father owned an arsenal of weapons, and when law enforcement searched the boy’s home last week, a cache of guns — many of which were unregistered — was seized.
Last week, the Los Angeles Times and NBC reported the weapon could have been a ghost gun based on initial examination of the weapon. Sheriff’s officials working with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives determined that was the case.
Authorities are seeing a proliferation of such untraceable weapons. LAPD officials say they have seen a growing number of the weapons in the last six years. In August, a semiautomatic rifle used in a gun battle between police and a convicted felon off the 215 Freeway killed California Highway Patrol Officer Andre Moye and wounded two of his colleagues. The weapons was a ghost gun that could not be traced by authorities, according to law enforcement sources.
In 2013, a gunman police identified as John Zawahri killed five people in the Santa Monica area using an AR-15-style rifle, which he built from a partially manufactured lower receiver that did not have a serial number and therefore did not have to be registered. Police said the parts needed to assemble a working rifle, including magazines of ammunition, were shipped to Zawahri from out of state.
“About a third of all firearms seized in Southern California now are unserialized, and that is expected to grow,” Ginger Colbrun, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles region’s ATF office, told The Times in August.
Those with lengthy criminal histories usually buy their weapons on the black market, according to law enforcement officials. In one raid last year, authorities recovered 45 ghost guns following a six-month undercover operation in Hollywood. In that case, some of the weapons, which police said were made by a gang, were assault weapons.
Such weapons often come in kits and can be acquired at gun shows or by mail. As one expert described it, the guns are as easy to assemble as Ikea furniture. A pistol consists of a frame, which includes the trigger housing that may need some tabs shaved off and several holes drilled before it can accept the barrel and action and then fire. The frame is known as an 80% receiver because it comes mostly, but not completely, manufactured. The finished gun has no serial number and therefore avoids background checks and waiting periods.