At 18, Zachary Burkard was too young to buy a handgun from a licensed gun store, and he was an admitted drug dealer with mental health issues, court records show. So he went to the website of 80P Builder, a seller of “ghost gun” parts with no serial numbers, bought a gun kit and assembled a complete pistol himself.
Teens buying ghost guns online, with deadly consequences
As unserialized firearms proliferate on the streets, teens discover the ease of obtaining weapons they couldn’t get from a licensed dealer
About two months later, Burkard watched a fistfight unfold between two schoolmates at a friend’s house. He entered the Springfield, Va., home’s garage and began shooting. Ersheen Elaiaiser and Calvin Van Pelt, both 17, were killed by bullets from Burkard’s homemade ghost gun. Neither of the victims was armed. Van Pelt was shot twice in the back as he ran away.
In court, an audio recording was played of the 2021 shooting, while the parents of both victims listened in agony. “You can hear our son, saying, ‘Hey cool it,’ like ‘Fight’s over, we good,’” Calvin’s father, Michael Winfield, said. “That’s Calvin. I mean, even in the face of death, he was being a leader, trying to calm things down.”
Van Pelt had never met Burkard, and Van Pelt’s family was stunned to learn how the gun wound up in Burkard’s hands.
“They’ve just made it entirely too easy to get these guns,” said Winfield, sitting next to his wife, who during a recent interview wore a necklace with a picture of their late son smiling. “A child can buy one. There’s no background checks. You don’t even need a bank account. You can go to 7-Eleven and get a debit card, put money on it and buy a gun.”
The families of the two teens, with the help of the anti-gun-violence group Everytown for Gun Safety, are now suing the distributor of the parts Burkard used to make his ghost gun, 80P Builder of Florida, and the manufacturer, Polymer80 of Nevada, for gross negligence in providing a teenager with a weapon when he was not legally able to buy a handgun from a federally licensed dealer.
The case, those who track the weapons say, demonstrates a frightening phenomenon that has compounded the Biden administration’s struggles to rein in the soaring use of ghost guns in violent crimes: Teenagers have discovered the ease with which they can acquire the parts for a ghost gun, and they have been buying, building and shooting the homemade guns with alarming frequency. Everytown for Gun Safety compiled a list of more than 50 incidents involving teens and ghost guns since 2019. Among them:
- In Brooklyn Park, Minn., police arrested two teens with ghost guns in December after authorities said one of them attempted to shoot someone outside their car but instead killed their friend inside it.
- In New Rochelle, N.Y., a 16-year-old created a “ghost gun factory” in his bedroom last year, police said, before killing another 16-year-old.
- In one week last year in Prince George’s County, Md., a 13-year-old and a 16-year-old were arrested in their schools while carrying ghost guns, authorities said.
- In Montgomery County, Md., a teen using a ghost gun shot and seriously injured another student inside the boys’ bathroom at Magruder High School last year.
Polymer80 did not respond to a request for comment, but said in response to the lawsuit that it did not sell a gun kit to Burkard. 80P Builder, the company that sold the gun kit to the 18-year-old, did not respond to a request for comment, and its website no longer offers frames, receivers or full gun kits. The company that owns 80P Builder, Salvo Technologies, was also sued and declined to speak about the case.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) estimated that Polymer80 was responsible for more than 88 percent of the ghost guns recovered by police between 2017 and 2021, though there are nearly 100 manufacturers selling parts, or full kits, which can be made into unserialized guns, a list compiled by Everytown shows.
Teens are hardly the only users. Last year, police departments seized at least 25,785 ghost guns nationwide, the Justice Department said recently, and those are just the weapons submitted by police to ATF for tracing, even though they don’t have serial numbers and largely cannot be traced.
In 2021, the number of guns recovered was 19,344, meaning seizures rose 33 percent the following year. ATF has linked ghost guns to 692 homicides and nonfatal shootings through 2021, including mass killings and school shootings. An ATF spokeswoman said the agency could not provide data on incidents involving ghost guns and teens. Guns found at crime scenes can often be tracked to their last owner by the serial number, but ghost guns have no such identifier.
Ghost guns are created by using a metal or polymer “frame,” for handguns, or a “receiver,” for rifles. The frames and receivers, which have no serial numbers on them, are often referred to as an “80 percent lower,” meaning the lower part of the gun, which is 80 percent finished. The other 20 percent involves some drilling and machining so that the other parts — the slide, the barrel, the firing mechanism — can be attached to the frame or receiver.
Some companies sell the frames or receivers with a “jig” — in which to place the parts and help users drill and finish the gun — and some sell all the necessary parts in a complete gun-building kit. Online videos provide instruction on how to build an unserialized gun. Making a homemade gun isn’t illegal, but transferring an unserialized gun to someone else is illegal.
Because many ghost gun parts manufacturers do not consider their “80 percent” frames or receivers to be firearms, they do not believe they are required to conduct any background checks or to refuse to sell to teenagers. A full ghost gun kit can cost between $800 and $1,000, according to websites that sell them.
For years, the makers of ghost gun parts pointed to letters issued by ATF that ruled that an unfinished frame or receiver was not a gun.
To try to stem the ghost gun tide, the Biden administration and ATF last year published a rule that clarified that frames and receivers qualify as firearms under the Gun Control Act of 1968, and require serial numbers and background checks before being sold. The law has long defined “firearm” to mean any weapon that “is designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projectile” or “the frame or receiver of any such weapon.”
But the parts makers quickly challenged the new rule in court. In two courts, they were defeated. But in the federal court of northern Texas — the same jurisdiction where a judge recently imposed a ban on abortion pills — the ghost gun makers found a sympathetic ear. U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor ruled that the new ATF rule exceeded the agency’s authority under the Gun Control Act, writing that “the liberty interests of law-abiding citizens wishing to engage in historically lawful conduct … outweighs the Government’s competing interest in preventing prohibited persons from unlawfully possessing firearms.” Late last month, O’Connor issued a decision vacating the rule.
The case is now likely to head to the Fifth Circuit, also widely considered conservative, and if the Justice Department loses there it could appeal to the Supreme Court.
Dudley Brown, the president of the National Association for Gun Rights, said he is against all regulation of privately made firearms, calling the practice of building weapons a “long and storied tradition in America.” Brown, who has built guns with 80 percent kits and molded lower receivers from blocks of aluminum, said he has encouraged companies that sell kits to sue the Biden administration over its ghost gun order.
“I believe it’s very rare that a 15-year-old will make a homemade pistol,” Brown said. “That is an extremely difficult process.”
As the ATF rule grinds through the courts, communities across the country have begun to suffer from the latest phenomenon: teenagers wielding homemade guns. In May, San Jose school resource officers arrested a student who authorities alleged brought a loaded ghost gun to a high school campus. Later that month in Baltimore, authorities arrested three 14-year-olds after armed robberies and an armed carjacking. Police said one of them had a ghost gun.
And in Valdosta, Ga., authorities said, a 16-year-old bought a ghost gun kit online in 2021 and assembled her own Glock-style pistol. One day while some friends were at her house, the teen accidentally shot a 14-year-old in the head, leaving him partially paralyzed, with severe brain damage and permanent physical and cognitive issues, his family’s lawyer Melvin Hewitt said. The family has sued Polymer80 for selling the gun kit without checking the buyer’s age.
“This is a case of selling guns over the internet to anybody who wants one,” Hewitt said. “A 10-year-old can do it. A convicted felon who’s not allowed to have firearms can do it. And apparently Polymer and the rest of these manufacturers said, ‘Oh, that’s okay.’ Well, we think that’s not okay. We think that’s just grossly negligent conduct.”
Hewitt noted that videos posted online show any viewer how to drill and machine the parts into a gun. “‘We’ll not only give you the parts and the drill bits to put it together, go to the internet, here’s a video to show you how to put it together, kid. No problem,’” Hewitt said. “Which is crazy.”
Loran Kelley, the founder and owner of Polymer80, told ProPublica last year: “Polymer80 is on the front lines of protecting the Second Amendment rights of all Americans right now. That’s not a brag. It’s just the reality because we’ve become the whipping boy for emotionally driven government policy.” Kelley said putting a serial number on his products wouldn’t hurt Polymer80, but he said using those numbers to require background checks would be a “critical threat” to his business because his customers include a large number of people who “value their Fourth Amendment rights” to privacy.
“There’s a problem when people’s right to privacy is infringed and a government agency is looking at what you bought whenever they want,” he said.
At least 12 states, including Virginia, have adopted laws regulating unserialized weapons, though the parts makers continue to ship them almost everywhere. Polymer80 can no longer sell to D.C. residents as a result of an injunction obtained last year by the city’s attorney general. Just last month, D.C. police unveiled a program that provides $1,000 rewards to people who provide tips that lead to an arrest for illegal gun possession in the city — with extra cash incentives if the seized weapon is a ghost gun.
After settling a case with the city of Los Angeles earlier this year, Polymer80 also cannot sell gun kits in California without serializing parts and performing background checks. The company is also banned from providing assistance to customers trying to build ghost guns.
“Protecting our kids from ghost guns requires a multi-prong approach,” said Eric Tirschwell, an attorney for Everytown, “and holding ghost gun kit manufacturers and sellers accountable in court when shootings result from their reckless and illegal business practices is a central pillar in that strategy.”
In the Fairfax shootings, Burkard was charged with two counts of murder, but the jury convicted him of manslaughter. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Through his attorney, Burkard declined to comment. The prosecutor whose office handled the case decried the ease with which teens are able to acquire unserialized handguns.
“There can no longer be a viable argument from these companies that they don’t know what their product is being used for,” said Steve Descano, the commonwealth’s attorney for Fairfax County, whose office prosecuted Burkard. “Unfortunately, profit motive is more important than people’s lives to these companies.”
Family members of the slain teens said the boys were raised in households where safety was paramount. Mashaer Adlan, Elaiaiser’s mother, said she had moved her family from Sudan to the United States to escape violence. At 17, Elaiaiser was a clothing designer with dreams of creating his own fashion line, said his sister Nidal Elaiaiser. The day before his death, Elaiaiser had opened his first pop-up store in D.C. to sell his designs.
Winfield, Van Pelt’s father, said he made sure his children understood that guns are dangerous. The only play weapons he allowed in the house were bright-colored — “something that looks like a toy.” Winfield said he took two voluntary safety classes before buying his own firearm to show his kids that guns should be hard to purchase.
And he thought they were, until 24 hours after his son went to watch a fistfight in a Springfield, Va., garage and was killed as he ran away.
Winfield said he stood outside a police station, begging a detective to tell him anything about what had gone wrong. To explain how his son — who often came with him to work at his companion care company — had been shot.
The detective told him, Winfield recalled, that there was “something interesting about the gun.” It had no serial number.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” Winfield said. “How many more of these guns are out there? How many more of these guns are in my community?”