As the country deals with a surge in gun violence, there’s new evidence that more criminals in San Diego are armed with homemade, untraceable firearms.
NBC 7 Investigates, in partnership with NBC Bay Area, NBC Los Angeles, and The Trace, a nonprofit organization that covers news on gun violence, found law enforcement agencies across California are recovering record numbers of unserialized guns or “ghost guns” used in crimes.
The San Diego Police Department is one of the few agencies in the state tracking unserialized guns used in crimes. According to data obtained by NBC 7, in 2017, San Diego Police seized five unserialized guns used in crimes. In 2018, the department collected 52 guns in the course of investigations.
In the city of Oceanside, in 2017, police seized five unserialized guns used in crimes. In 2018, records show officers seized 19 guns.
What separates the average firearm from a ghost gun is how it was manufactured and the paper trail connected to it. Ghost guns are often constructed outside a traditional supply chain, using 3-D printers or assembled with parts sold online or in stores. Those nearly completed firearms, known as “80 percent receivers,” can be purchased without a background check.
“It went from something I never saw to something that was very common,” said San Diego Police Criminalist Toniann Rebick.
Since 2015, the Escondido Police Department has seized 15 guns used in crimes. In La Mesa, Police have seized only one gun. All other law enforcement agencies in San Diego County told NBC 7 Investigates they do not track unserialized firearms used in crimes.
Lawmakers say tracking is important in order to know how often these kinds of self-made, unserialized guns are getting in the wrong hands.
“This is one of the worst I’ve ever seen…”
It was just after 10 p.m. on a Saturday in June of 2018 when San Diego Police Officers Shawn Boggerman, Francisco Roman and a third officer arrived at 28-year-old Joseph Darwish’s College Area condo.
A neighbor had called 911 after hearing Darwish yelling and cursing at a woman, and seeing him pace back and forth in the hallway of the condominium.
A week before, officers had responded to the same location after a neighbor reported Darwish was yelling and possibly fighting with a woman inside his unit. During that call, neighbors reported they could hear the woman screaming.
On that June 2018 night, Officers Boggerman and Roman said they knocked on Darwish’s door for 20 minutes but he did not answer. Eventually, the officers told dispatch they smelled smoke coming from the unit and needed help from firefighters.
Fearing a fire inside the condo, two firefighter trainees and their supervisor used a crowbar to pry open Darwish’s door. The firefighters then stepped aside, so police could enter Darwish’s condominium.
As one of the officers yelled, “San Diego Police,” Darwish open fired with an assault-style rifle. Bullets sprayed through the walls into the hallway where officers and firefighters were standing. The unnamed officer was shot in the back, landed on his stomach and crawled away from Darwish’s doorway. Officers Boggerman and Roman returned fire. When Roman tried to help the wounded officer, Darwish shot Roman in the arm. As the officers crawled away from the condo, Darwish kept firing.
When Darwish stopped shooting, SWAT officers entered his condo and found him dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Crime scene technicians later determined that Darwish had fired at least 33 rounds from his homemade, unserialized rifle. Police also found a pistol; homemade and unserialized.
The details and video of the Darwish shooting were released this week by the San Diego County District Attorney’s office. According to its analysis, prosecutors say the officers’ use of force was justified.
NBC 7 Investigates confirmed with the District Attorney’s office that Darwish had a prior conviction for assault and battery, which prevented him from legally buying a firearm.
But Darwish avoided a traditional background check by obtaining an unserialized gun.
“This is one of the worst I’ve ever seen,” said San Diego Police Criminalist Rebick, holding the weapon Darwish used. “It was just mimicking a fully automatic [firearm].”
Rebick said the total number of ghost guns seized in crimes remains relatively small compared to the number of traditionally-manufactured guns that police confiscate each year. But, Rebick added that some of the ghost guns she’s seen are poorly made, making them more prone to misfiring and much more dangerous than a legitimate firearm.
“More teeth and more bite.”
Cases like the Darwish shooting prompted Assemblyman Mike Gipson (D-Los Angeles) to try to strengthen state laws prohibiting the sale of the gun parts from which unregistered, unserialized weapons are made.
“Our laws have not caught up with our technology,” Gipson told NBC and The Trace.
NBC 7 Investigates first reported on ghost guns after state lawmakers passed a law that requires gun makers to register their firearms with the California Department of Justice (DOJ) by requesting a serial number.
Putting the system in place also meant anyone caught in possession of an unregistered, unserialized weapon could face criminal charges. But Gipson says the current law is entirely based on an “honor system.”
“Let’s really make it honest,” Gipson said.
Gipson wants to change that. His proposed legislation, AB 879, would require background checks to purchase certain gun parts, including 80 percent lower receivers. This would establish a paper trail, providing law enforcement a clue if a ghost gun falls into the wrong hands.
“I think this would give [the past law] more teeth and more bite,” Gipson said. “You can still have your hobby, this is for those who seek to go around that.”
“I can 3-D print out a gun...no gun control laws are really going stop that.”
“The idea that these evil ghost guns are used in murders all the time, it’s just false,” said Dimitri Karras, an employee of Firearms Unknown in the city of Oceanside.
In the store, Karras stands in front of rows of 80 percent receivers or nearly complete guns, for all different kinds of firearms. Karras believes most of the people interested in making their own guns are hobbyists and have been doing this for years.
“It’s not as if weapons without serial numbers on them are some sort of a new phenomenon,” Karras said. “All the way up until 1968, you could buy a .22 for your kid for $20. It would show up at your house and there was no requirement for a serial number on it.”
In 2010, Karras founded Ares Armor, another gun parts store that stocked 80 percent lowers and other parts for homemade guns. But four years later, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) raided Ares Armor and seized 6,000 incomplete receivers along with the store’s list of customers.
Prosecutors accused Ares Armor of selling AR-15 lower receivers that the government considered firearms.
But Karras was never officially charged and after a series of court battles, the ATF returned all of the gun parts seized back to Karras.
“They did absolutely nothing about it,” Karras said. “Because at the end of the day, they know they’re wrong.”
The ATF declined to comment on the Karras’ case to NBC and The Trace.
Karras believes no matter what new laws are passed or systems put in place, criminals will still obtain these guns.
“I can go home and I can 3D print out a gun in a matter of an hour,” Karras said. “No gun control laws are really going to be able to stop that.”