How criminals are exploiting a legal loophole that lets you make guns at home

Cody Wilson made 3D-printed guns famous. But there’s an easier and cheaper way to make a semi-automatic rifle at home, and it’s unregistered, unserialized and completely legal: buying gun parts online.

As Fusion found last year in a joint investigation with Univision, the loophole that makes these guns legal for personal use (the unfinished parts sold separately don’t require registration) is also making it easier for people who would not pass a background check to get their hands on high powered weapons.

Now there’s more evidence that these homemade guns sometimes land in the hands of criminals.

Last week, an investigation by a team of law-enforcement agencies that went back at least five months ended with the arrests of four California men charged with illegally manufacturing and trafficking more than 50 guns. Some of them were built from parts bought legally.

According to court records, last December two of the men—Clay Bautista-Marquez and Matthew Nutt—sold a confidential informant with a criminal record three AR-15 style semi-automatic rifles.

A month later, another one of the men arrested, Christian Romero, brought gun parts to the same confidential informant and built two AR-15s in front of him, charging him $2,100 for the fully-assembled firearms. Within a few weeks, he sold another homemade firearm.

All of these semi-automatic rifles were sold without background checks, and they lacked any identifying marks.

“These weapons are particularly dangerous because they bear no manufacturer markings or serial numbers making them virtually impossible to trace.” said Carlos Canino, special agent in charge of the Los Angeles division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in a statement.

The kicker is that, while it is illegal to build and sell the untraceable firearms to someone else, it’s perfectly OK to build one for yourself. Anyone can build their own gun at home, as long as they are legally able to own one. Of course, it’s all on the honor system, since anyone can buy the parts online anonymously.

It all goes back to one very special part. The lower receiver is the part of the firearm that makes a gun a gun—the part that gets stamped with a serial number, and that requires a background check. It connects all the moving parts of the gun and makes it shoot. If you purchase what’s called an “unfinished lower receiver,” one that still requires a few extra holes to be drilled out, it’s not a gun yet, so you’re buying a hunk of metal like any other, according to federal gun laws. No background check necessary.

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Gun enthusiasts say that it’s easier for a criminal to buy a normal, serialized gun illegally on the street than to buy an unfinished receiver, drill it out, and build a weapon himself. But that’s getting easier: Plastic unfinished lower receivers can be drilled out with a simple hand drill.

Even Cody Wilson’s non-profit, Defense Distributed, is getting in on the unfinished receiver market. They developed a mini computerized drill called the Ghost Gunner, which automatically drills out the holes in the unfinished receiver according to a computer file. “Legally manufacture unserialized AR-15’s in the comfort and privacy of your home,” boasts the site.

And, as Reveal reported last week, unfinished receivers with gun parts kits can easily be found on online marketplaces as innocuous as EBay.

No one tracks how many unfinished receivers are sold nation-wide since they don’t have to be registered. But last year Fusion spoke with one of the country’s biggest sellers, who sells about 75,000 unfinished receivers each year.

Law enforcement is pushing hard to catch those with sinister intentions from taking advantage of this quirk in the gun law.

“When law enforcement officials join forces in this type of investigation, the result is a significant disruption in violent crime,” said Carlos Canino.

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