Ghost gunsGhost guns are everywhere in California

By Alain Stephens

Published 22 May 2019

Feds say nearly a third of firearms recovered in California are homemade, unserialized, and untraceable. Experts say the accessibility of ghost guns is aided by a cottage industry of retailers selling nearly completed firearms that require no screening to purchase.

Homemade "ghost" gun // Source:

For the better part of a year, Kevin Savangsy allegedly sold caches of weapons to federal agents out of parking lots and garages in Sacramento. The 29-year-old told his customers that he could get “hella shit,” including guns that police would never trace. Court documents suggest he lived up to that promise. At first, Savangsy’s offerings were conventional: handguns, AK-47s, and AR-15s. Then, on the morning of 23 October 2018, he unveiled his newest product: a homemade, unserialized pistol modeled after a Glock. Over the next three months, agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives bought a dozen more unserialized weapons, including AR-15s modified to shoot fully automatic. A raid on Savangsy’s home in late January turned up thousands of dollars of cash, pounds of drugs, and twenty-four machine guns.

Unserialized weapons, colloquially known as “ghost guns,” entered the American imagination as the creation of hobbyists and backyard tinkerers. But as they’ve grown in popularity, criminals have identified ghost guns as a way to get around California’s restrictive gun laws. This class of weapons is easy to buy, and undetectable to authorities, because they are built without the government’s knowledge.

An investigation by The Trace in partnership with NBC Bay Area, NBC San Diego, and NBC Los Angeles found that law enforcement agencies across California are recovering record numbers of ghost guns. According to the ATF, 30 percent of all guns now recovered by agents in the state are unserialized. And without a serial number, they cannot be traced in criminal investigations.

California police departments that track ghost gun recoveries are seeing a similar trend. “This is not just something for enthusiasts. This has become something for people that are actual practitioners of violence,” said Graham Barlowe, the resident agent in charge at the ATF’s Sacramento field office.

A ghost gun is a firearm manufactured outside of the traditional supply chain. It can be printed on a 3-D printer, or assembled with parts sold by the dozens of companies that create nearly completed firearms — known as “80 percent receivers,” which require no background check to sell.