‘Ghost Gun’ Used in Deadly LA-Area High School Shooting, Police Say

LOS ANGELES (CN) – When 16-year-old Nathaniel Tennosuke Berhow shot his classmates at Saugus High School in California on Nov. 14, he used a gun that was not made through conventional means and was not registered, law enforcement revealed Thursday.

Investigators search Saugus High School in Los Angeles County on Nov. 14, 2019, after a 16-year-old student shot five of his classmates with a handgun before shooting himself. (Photo by NATHAN SOLIS/Courthouse News Service)

The handgun used in the deadly shooting was put together by “kit parts” and not purchased from a gun manufacturer, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said.

Federal investigators say gun parts purchased online are difficult to trace and have been referred colloquially by the media as “ghost guns” as they can be assembled by individuals with blueprints downloaded online. The gun Berhow used to kill two students and then himself did not have a serial number.

“We have no evidence to indicate who assembled it or bought the components,” said the sheriff’s department. The gun was put together by an individual and not a conventional gun manufacturer and investigators are trying to determine who built the .45-caliber handgun Berhow used.

Gracie Muehlberger, 15, and Dominic Blackwell, 14, were killed after Berhow walked into his school’s outdoor quad shortly after 7:30 a.m. on his 16th birthday, pulled out the handgun from his backpack and began firing at his classmates. In total, Berhow shot five students and then he shot himself in the head. He died the following day at a local hospital.

According to surveillance footage, Berhow appeared to be counting his rounds as fired at his classmates. He did not move from his position or chase anyone down, said LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva.

“Based on the totality of the circumstances, the way he was firing his weapon, he was counting his rounds, it appeared he knew exactly what he had. Bringing that weapon on campus to begin with, it wasn’t a spur of the moment act,” said Villanueva. “As far as we know, the actual targets were at random.”

Investigators said the entire incident took about 16 seconds from when the first shot was fired.

Investigators have found no clear motive for the shooting. Villanueva said the leadup to the shooting was completely random and Berhow’s mother even packed corn dogs, grapes and cookies for her son’s lunch that day.

Investigators are also working to unlock the teen’s cellphone.

Federal agents found six guns registered to Berhow’s late father at his home as well as others that were not registered. Whether the gun used in the shooting had belonged to Berhow’s father is unclear at this time.

“What we don’t know is what the deceased father did,” said Villanueva. “The mystery is who assembled what.”

Constitutional law professor Adam Winkler from UCLA calls “ghost guns” a growing phenomenon, the firearms equivalent of dark money which is nearly impossible to trace.

“They create another big loophole area in our already loophole-riddled gun laws,” Winkler said in an interview.

Gun enthusiasts who build guns from kits purchased online or at trade shows are much more common. Winkler likened it to building a car from a kit.

“It’s perfectly legal to make these kit guns. That’s why it’s become so popular,” says Winkler.

The terminology behind the homemade gun market can extend to 3D-printed gun parts or DIY 80% lower firearm builds – that skirts the federal definition of what is legally considered a gun and can be purchased from retailers. The rest of the gun is put together by the hobbyist with easy-to-use instructions.

“These days more and more people are building,” Winkler said.

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