An AR-15 can shoot 45 rounds a minute. It can shoot a bullet a half a mile in distance. It’s a powerful weapon. And for some people, it’s almost like a toy.
They call them Barbies for men, because of the interchangeable parts that allow you to alter your semi-automatic rifle to your liking. Hobbyists have been building their own AR-15s for years using parts sold as upgrade components. It’s all perfectly kosher as long as you are legally allowed to own a gun and keep it for your own personal use.
Until recently, it was underground - a hobby for serious gun aficionados. In the last few years though, gun building has grown in popularity, with groups coming together at build parties to spend an afternoon assembling their own firearms. Pizza and beer included.
Now, a joint Fusion/Univision investigation has found criminals are getting their hands on homemade guns, and they are increasingly being found at crime scenes in the U.S. and in the hands of drug cartels in Latin America.
There’s a reason criminals want these guns. They’re unserialized and unregistered. No one knows they exist. And no one knows who’s making them. Sold as an unregulated parts kit, a homemade gun, when built, is invisible. It’s one part makes it all possible: the receiver.
The receiver is the part of the gun that houses the mechanical components and projects the bullet. Receivers are stamped with serial numbers. To buy one requires a background check.
Unless you buy one that’s not completed -- what they call an unfinished, or 80% receiver. It’s incomplete enough that the government doesn’t consider it a gun yet, just a piece of metal like any other. One you can buy online, no questions asked. But when you drill the required holes, you have the heart of an unregistered gun.
It’s impossible to know how many weapons built with unfinished receivers there are, since they’re not regulated, but two vendors, Dimitri Karras of Ares Armor in California, and another based in Florida, told Fusion they expect to sell around 75,000 unfinished receivers this year. An agent from the California Department of Justice told Fusion that the growth in unfinished receivers in the last two years is unlike anything he’s seen in more than a dozen years on the job.
The California Department of Justice and ATF agents in California -- the epicenter of the homemade gun industry, likely because of it’s stringent gun laws -- told Fusion that they were finding more and more of these guns at crime scenes and in the hands of organized crime. Carlos Canino, Special Agent in Charge of the LA Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Field Office who previously worked in Mexico, estimated that about 10 percent of the guns recovered in Mexico are homemade. He also told Fusion they’re being found in Central America and as far as Colombia.
WATCH: Mexican Drug Cartels Have a new way of Getting U.S. Guns
Since unfinished receivers are legal, the ATF, which is charged with enforcing the nation's gun laws, is engaged in a cat and mouse game, going after people who are manufacturing and selling them illegally, while allowing hobbyists to continue.
Lawmakers are getting in on the game too. In January, a California state senator, Kevin de Leon, introduced legislation that would require serial numbers for unfinished receivers, so people would have to pass a background check to buy one, just as with a gun or a finished receiver.
De Leon isn’t the first legislator to try to tackle the issue. Congressman Henry Waxman (D, Calif.) proposed legislation banning unfinished receivers altogether last year. The bill failed.
CASES FOUND BY FUSION AND UNIVISION INVESTIGATIVE TEAMS
February 27, 2014, SACRAMENTO, CALIF.
Two brothers, Emiliano and Luis Cortez-Garcia are indicted for illegally manufacturing AR-15s with unfinished receivers. During a 10-month investigation, undercover ATF agents and confidential informants were allegedly able to buy fully-built AR-15s from the brothers and others who worked with them. Their lawyer told Fusion they broke no laws. The ATF seized 345 weapons, some of which had illegal alterations, like shortened barrels or being made fully automatic.
Read the affidavit here.
June 7, 2013, SANTA MONICA, CALIF.
John Zawahri kills his father and brother before burning down their house. He carjacks a car and drives to the Santa Monica College campus, according to police, where Zawarhi kills three more people before being shot and killed himself. Santa Monica Police said that Zawahri was unable to buy a gun in 2011, because of a failed a background check. Investigators said he built the AR-15 style weapon he used in the shooting with parts he bought online, including an unfinished lower receiver. He altered the rifle to make it automatic, which is illegal to possess.
May 15, 2013, MONTEBELLO, CALIF.
As part of a two-year gang investigation that led to 38 arrests and solved six cold-case murders, undercover ATF agents allegedly purchased three machine guns built with unfinished receivers from members of the Southside Montebello gang.
Read an indictment for the case here.
Indictment for unregistered guns purchased by ATF agents.
April 12, 2013, CORPUS CHRISTI, TEXAS
Michael Yarbrough, 22 years old, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for manufacturing AK-47s using gun kits and unfinished receivers. Yarbrough bought 900 gun kits in seven months. Eleven of the weapons he built were recovered in Mexico because of unique markings he used. One was seized at a crime scene in which three people were killed.
Read the indictment here.
Related: After airing this investigation on his show, Jorge Ramos interviewed Larry Pratt, the Executive Director of the Gun Owners Association about the homemade gun industry and he had this to say: