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The debate over do-it-yourself guns

Channel 2 Investigates looks into what it takes to buy, build one of these kits

HOUSTON – Lawmakers are again debating an issue involving the sale of "do-it-yourself" rifles. Some of the rifles built from these kits have been referred to as "ghost guns," since a key component comes without a serial number, making it untraceable once complete.

Channel 2 Investigates looked into what it takes to buy and build one of these kits, who is buying the kits and arguments on both sides of the debate.

A quick online search turns up several sites offering rifle kits for sale. Many of these kits include an unfinished lower receiver, which is sometimes referred to as an "80 percent lower." The lower receiver is crucial to the operation of a rifle because it contains the fire-control components. The "80 percent" term indicates the component a person is buying is not complete and requires machine work before it will allow the purchaser to build a functioning weapon.

According to federal gun laws, the receiver is the component that constitutes a firearm. If the receiver is complete, then all applicable gun laws apply to its sale, possession, transfer and it must be engraved with a serial number. If the lower receiver is not complete, under federal law, it is not considered a firearm. Therefore, no background check or paperwork is required for purchase. Federal law also does not require unfinished receivers to be engraved with a serial number when sold.

KPRC purchased an AR-15 rifle kit from an online retailer for $599. The kit came with all the necessary components of a rifle. Many retailers also offer, at an extra cost, step-by-step guides and the tools needed to complete a kit.

"So this kit is everything we need to build our own gun?" Channel 2 investigator Robert Arnold said.

"It is," said Rob Elder, a retired special agent-in-charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Houston office.

"There's a big demand for this?" Arnold asked.

"Yes," Elder said.

However, the kit KPRC purchased included an unfinished receiver. Elder was with KPRC when the purchase was made.

"Technically, I did not just buy a gun?" Arnold asked.

"You did not buy a gun," Elder said.

This is why no background check or federal firearms paperwork was required for the purchase. Once the rifle is built it would essentially become untraceable since the receiver was not required to be engraved with a serial number at the time of purchase.

"The biggest concern for law enforcement is the inability to trace these guns if they are used in a crime," said Fred Milanowski, the current special agent-in-charge of the ATF's Houston office.

Milanowski said a lower receiver only becomes a gun when the proper holes are drilled out to accept the other components. He also said if a person completes a lower receiver on their own and keeps it for personal use, then the law does not require them to engrave a serial number.

If a person with a criminal record buys an unfinished receiver, they immediately become in violation of the law once the receiver is complete and considered a firearm.

"ATF is seeing more and more of these showing up in ATF cases, even seeing them recovered in the country of Mexico," Milanowski said.

However, the ATF stipulates since these guns have no serial numbers and are untraceable, it's virtually impossible to track exactly how many are used in crimes. Still, seeing a rise in popularity, the ATF has been training agents on how these unfinished receivers are manufactured into a firearm.

KPRC wanted to understand what it took to complete a lower receiver, so we took our kit to Spring Guns and Ammo.

"Do you see people coming in with these kits, asking you to put them together?" Arnold asked.

"Most of the people that buy the kits want what we call a 'ghost gun,'" owner Christopher Rhodes said.

It took Rhodes' gunsmith nearly four hours of precision work to complete our lower receiver and assemble the rifle. Save for one jam, the rifle worked well. There is a catch, however, to going the route we did with the completion of the rifle.

"We have, in point of fact, manufactured a gun," Rhodes said.

Since Spring Guns and Ammo has a manufacturer's license, by law, it has to put a serial number on any kit it puts together and log the weapon into its records, which is what it did with the kit KPRC purchased. In fact, once the rifle was complete, Spring Guns and Ammo maintained possession of the weapon until, at KPRC's request, it was "abandoned" to the custody of the ATF.

"When they find out that you have to put a serial number on it, do they say, 'OK, no, thanks?'" Arnold asked in reference to people bringing in kits for completion.

"That's correct," Rhodes said.

"'I'll do it myself,'" Arnold said.

"Yeah, or get it done some other way," Rhodes said. "There is a lot of people that are concerned about gun registration, and they don't want their gun in any record at all."

Rhodes said he has encountered people who are concerned the federal government will, one day, confiscate all firearms.

"Is that the main reason you see people buying unserialized weapons," Arnold asked.

"That's the main reason. We can sell them a fully put-together gun cheaper than they can buy in a kit," Rhodes said.

"Do you trust the government?" said David Amad, with Open Carry Texas. "It's very simple. The first step is to make a list."

Amad argues against government gun control and said he is concerned firearms confiscation is a possibility.

"How does having a serial number on anything stop that object from being used for something bad?" Amad said. "If you want to prevent crime, allow the good guys to do what the bad guys are already doing -- carry their guns."

Amad's colleague, Candace Martin, shares these concerns.

"Those kind of constraints don't apply to criminals, because the definition of a criminal is somebody who doesn't follow the rules," Martin said. "We are losing a lot of our personal liberties in the interest of a small percentage of security."

California did pass its own law regarding the regulation of kits that include unfinished receivers, but two federal bills have stalled. Lawmakers are also divided on whether tighter controls are needed on the sale of kits with unfinished receivers.

"Criminals don't buy a kit and assemble a gun," Republican Congressman Ted Poe said. "They steal guns or they get it from a straw purchaser, or they buy it on the black market."

ATF officials said federal law prevents the bureau from compiling a national database of all firearms owners and the only weapons it is interested in tracking are the ones used in crimes.

The ATF did share with KPRC an example of where serial numbers became crucial to a criminal investigation involving a Houston man building guns for a criminal organization in Colombia.

ATF explains how serial numbers stopped guns going south

A tip from the public set agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives on a lengthy investigation involving a Houston man and guns being built for criminal organizations in Colombia. In 2013, a Houston man was sentenced to more than 8 years in prison for buying guns and gun parts, and then sending the weapons to Colombia.

[WATCH: DIY firearms - the importance of serial numbers]

“It's all about greed and making money,” said Fred Milanowski, Special Agent-In-Charge of the ATF’s Houston office.

Milanowski is talking about Patrick Brewer Regan, who was paid to send the weapons to Colombia. Another man, Nicolas Alig was given probation for buying guns for Regan.

Milanowski said Regan spent years buying guns and gun parts from several spots in the US and then shipping the items to fictitious people at abandoned homes in Colombia.

“He was going to Colombia to put those firearms back together for the criminal organization,” said Milanowski. “He had lived in Colombia, married a Colombian national, so he was very familiar with the country.”

When announcing Regan’s prison sentence, federal officials wrote weapons were supplied to criminal organizations in Colombia that would, "take over and control areas of the country by killing law abiding citizens and legitimate police officers."

Milanowoski said before ATF learned of the scheme, 125 guns made it to Colombia. The ATF was able to stop another 32 from getting into that country by conducting round-the-clock surveillance and stopping the packages from leaving the country. Milanowski said what was key in the case was serial numbers. Even though ATF agents said Regan tried to obliterate some of the numbers, they were able to use enough serial numbers on other weapons to tie Regan back to the purchases.

“We would have basically been at a standstill because we wouldn't have had anywhere to go back to trace these firearms,” Milanowski said would have been the case without having serial numbers to trace.

You can anonymously submit tips to the ATF through its website, or through its Reportit app, https://www.atf.gov/atf-tips.

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