Do-It-Yourself 'Ghost Guns' Bypass Background Checks And Firearm Registration When Kevin Neal went on his deadly shooting rampage last week in California, he used "ghost guns": homemade weapons built from kits and instructions found on the Internet.
NPR logo

Do-It-Yourself 'Ghost Guns' Bypass Background Checks And Firearm Registration

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Do-It-Yourself 'Ghost Guns' Bypass Background Checks And Firearm Registration

Do-It-Yourself 'Ghost Guns' Bypass Background Checks And Firearm Registration

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The gunman who went on a deadly shooting rampage last week in California used at least two homemade assault rifles. These were so-called ghost guns, weapons that can be built from do-it-yourself kits or by using instructions found online. The kits don't have any registration numbers attached to them, and you don't need to get a background check to buy them. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann found there is a growing industry that helps people build these guns.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: To find out how easy it would be to build my own gun here at home, I did what I do if I wanted advice fixing a clogged drain or repairing a bicycle tire.


MANN: A quick search on YouTube and boom...


MARK SERBU: So you can actually make this gun exactly the way you see it here.

MANN: That's Mark Serbu, an engineer in California who makes and sells detailed instructions and drawings for do-it-yourself handguns. In his video, he jokes with his co-host about how easy it is - no special tools required.


SERBU: He doesn't have basically anything. He has a piece of sidewalk and maybe a file.

MANN: It's a little more complicated than that but not much. In fact there are a lot of different ways to build pistols, assault rifles, shotguns. Some involve 3-D printers and sheets of metal. But most require only a few basic shop tools and preordered hobby kits. This other guy found on YouTube shows how to build a crude shotgun using a couple lengths of steel pipe. He fires the shotgun by ramming the lengths of pipe together.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It worked. I lost the (laughter) other piece, but it totally worked.

MANN: I called Mark Serbu, and he agreed to talk to me about his company and what he describes as a fast-growing hobby.

SERBU: Guys love guns. These are just, like, the coolest little toys for them. To me, it's about joy and inspiration. I mean, that sounds like a church.

MANN: But last week, the fun and games were eclipsed by horror. Kevin Neal drove through a rural town in California, hunting people. He murdered five adults and wounded seven children before being shot to death. Phil Johnston, an assistant sheriff in Tehama County, says Neal was banned from buying guns legally. He actually had to surrender a firearm because of a court order. So Neal built his own ghost guns, a pair of assault rifles. Sheriff Johnston spoke at a press conference.


PHIL JOHNSTON: These firearms are manufactured illegally, we believe by him at his home.

MANN: Given Neal's criminal background, it was clearly illegal for him to possess these guns once they'd been assembled. But for the companies making and selling these kits, it's a different story. They often market kits even for semiautomatic rifles that are as much as 80 percent complete. Just a few final steps, and they're ready to shoot.

But these companies don't have to do background checks. They don't have to find out if their customers are mentally ill or have histories of domestic violence or criminal records. The guns don't have to be registered. In fact there are no serial numbers on gun components that come packed in these kits.

ADAM SKAGGS: What is it going to take? We have known that this poses a real problem, and yet we haven't done anything about it.

MANN: I talked with Adam Skaggs via Skype. He's with the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Skaggs says it's time to close what he describes as a deadly loophole.

SKAGGS: The trick is regulating this ghost gun workaround just like we do fully functioning firearms and make sure that for people to buy them, they have to pass a background check.

MANN: So far, Congress has shown zero interest in regulating ghost gun products. I asked Mark Serbu about this. He's the guy who sells instructions for people wanting to build unregistered pistols.

SERBU: Yeah, we don't want gun crime. We don't want people getting shot. But most people realize there's - ultimately there's really nothing you can do about it.

MANN: There is research suggesting that gun regulation can limit violence and reduce fatalities, but Serbu doesn't buy it. He thinks requiring background checks for ghost gun kits would just anger hobbyists like himself without stopping a single criminal.

SERBU: How many laws do you want to stack in front of them before it's going to work? And unfortunately you just have psychopaths out there that just are going to do this kind of thing.

MANN: So for now, hobbyists like Serbu but also psychopaths, criminals, terrorists - they can all order as many of these weapon kits online as they want - no questions asked. Brian Mann, NPR News.


Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.