Thursday, November 28, 2019

Student Shooter Used ‘Ghost Gun’ Built From Parts

The gun used in the Southern California high-school shooting last week was a “ghost gun” with no serial number, law-enforcement officials said Thursday.

The .45 caliber handgun used by Nathaniel Berhow to kill two fellow students and wound three others at Saugus High School on Nov. 14 was built from parts that can be easily purchased online, the officials said. The 16-year-old shot himself as well and died the next day.

Homemade ghost guns have grown in popularity in recent years and cannot be traced because they lack serial numbers. Law-enforcement officials say they appeal to people who can’t pass background checks.

In 2017, for example, a Northern California man, who was prohibited from possessing firearms because of a restraining order, killed five people using a semiautomatic rifle that he made himself.

Investigators use serial numbers on guns to trace weapons used in crimes. Guns sold by gun dealers, where buyers must go through a background check, have serial numbers because federal law requires gun manufacturers to put them on the firearms that they sell.

Investigators from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are trying to determine whether the gun in this case, a 1911 model pistol, was made by the shooter’s late father, Mark Berhow, who was an avid hunter and firearms enthusiast. Police had seized firearms that were registered to Mark Berhow after he was detained in 2016 for a mental-health evaluation, law enforcement officials said. He died in 2017.

When police searched the gunman’s home, they found another ghost gun, as well as other gun parts. Investigators are trying to find out whether the ghost gun was built after the father’s registered guns were seized by police.

Sheriff Alex Villanueva said this week that no motive for last week’s attack has been uncovered. The shooter, who had a girlfriend and other friends, didn’t fit the stereotype of a school shooter, the sheriff said.

But at home, life had been a struggle for the teen. Mark Berhow had been arrested for domestic violence and struggled with alcoholism, law-enforcement officials said. The gunman’s parents fought for custody of him before the father died, according to court filings.

Authorities have seized more ghost guns in recent years. In the Los Angeles area, about one-third of all guns seized by the ATF are these untraceable weapons without serial numbers, according to the agency. In August, a man with a long rap sheet prohibiting him from owning a firearm used an AR-15-style ghost gun in a shootout with police that killed a California Highway Patrol officer in Riverside, Calif.

A new California law requires those who assemble ghost guns at home to get a serial number for the firearm. Online gun stores sell kits for such guns, which require a small amount of work to complete.

The starting point for building one is an “unfinished receiver,” a metal or polymer piece that houses the firing mechanism. It can be purchased without a background check, because the ATF doesn’t classify the part as a firearm. Buyers can finish the receiver with a drill press or a computerized metal-cutting machine and then add the remaining pieces to complete the gun. A finished receiver is considered a firearm by the ATF.

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