Ghost of a chance: Battle brews over new anti-ghost gun bill at the state Capitol

Mike Turner works over several disassembled ghost guns in his house. PHOTO BY KARLOS RENE AYALA

A former police officer looks to tackle untraceable assault weapons

Mike Gipson smiled as he walked through a lamp-studded hallway inside the state Capitol. Not only had the Democratic assemblyman’s bill targeting ghost guns just sailed through its first committee hearing, but Gipson learned that YouTube took down dozens of videos that walked laypeople through the process of building the high-powered, untraceable weapons.

“It just happened,” Gipson said last week of the online development. “They’ve taken a huge step in the right direction, because they also see the benefit now of making sure this is not accessible. Too many bad people, or people with mental illness, are going to the internet to do this—and the damage they’re doing is catastrophic.”

Moments earlier, Gipson recounted the blood-stained legacy of homemade arms to the Assembly Public Safety Committee. He started by revisiting the November 14, 2017, carnage that struck the Rancho Tehama Reserve, where Kevin Janson Neal used two AR-15 rifles he built in his living room to murder five people and wound nine others, including three small children. Neal was legally barred from possessing firearms as he awaited trial for attacking two women with a knife. But by personally assembling his assault rifles—ghost guns—Neal bypassed the database that flags criminals at licensed gun stores.

Gipson made sure the committee knew Neal’s killing spree wasn’t an isolated incident. He brought his colleagues’ memories back to June 2013, when Adam Zawahri used a homemade AR-15 to slaughter five people and wound four more at Santa Monica City College. Zawahri was also prohibited from owning firearms, in his case due to mental illness. Building a ghost gun solved that problem for him.

Gipson ended his address with a story set in his own district. In March, Alex Galvez was arrested for allegedly manufacturing and selling more than a hundred ghost guns on the streets of Compton, Watts and south Los Angeles. Federal prosecutors say Galvez even tried to mail his homemade firearms to Egypt and the Philippines.

With authorities across the state reporting more ghost guns turning up at armed robberies and gang shootings, Gipson views this little-known loophole in firearm regulations as a growing threat. Most of the lawmakers listening to him April 24 were convinced. Gipson’s Assembly Bill 2382—which attempts to implement background checks on a core component to ghost guns—passed out of the Public Safety Committee by a 5-2 vote.

Gipson knows, however, the fight’s not over. The National Rifle Association, Gun Owners of California, the Firearms Policy Coalition and the National Shooting Sports Foundation are all lining up to stall his bill. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a similar one last year. Gipson, a former police officer, is undeterred.

“If we don’t do something, we’re creating a society of anarchy,” he said.

Gipson isn’t the first lawmaker to heed law enforcement’s warnings about unrestricted self-made weapons.

Last year, Elk Grove-based Assemblyman Jim Cooper, a former sheriff’s captain, took a mild stab at the dilemma with Assembly Bill 857, which mandates that anyone who buys an unfinished lower receiver—the most essential frame-piece of a ghost gun—has to apply for a paper serial number from the California Department of Justice. After that, it’s on the gun owner to etch that number onto the completed weapon. The bill passed, though gun enthusiasts have widely mocked its ability to prevent crime, as it operates on a self-reporting honor system that criminals and deranged individuals can simply ignore.

Gipson’s new bill works differently. It would mandate that gun stores and parts suppliers perform standard background checks on anyone buying an unfinished lower receiver in California. That would record the purchases in a federal database designed to catch everything from past convictions to current restraining orders.

Amanda Wilcox, who heads the California chapter of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, thinks Gipson’s strategy is a good one.

“This is probably a more effective bill than the Cooper bill because it puts a requirement on the companies selling the parts, and a vendor is easier to regulate than a person,” Wilcox observed.

Daniel Reid, the California state director of the NRA, strongly disagrees. Reid has been calling Gipson’s bill “an incredible overreach” and “an enforcement nightmare.” He said unfinished lower receivers are “consumable items,” meaning simple parts that law-abiding gun owners use to repair and upgrade their firearms. Backing him is Craig DeLuz, the director of legislative affairs for the Firearms Policy Coalition. Deluz has also been lobbying hard against Gipson’s bill.

Taking on the law is increasing the strategy for gun rights’ groups in California. While the NRA hasn’t donated to a state legislative candidate in years, it has been spending money on attempts to defeat the state’s newer gun laws in federal court.

In 2010, the NRA sued acting California Department of Justice Chief Steve Lindey, trying to block the implementation of a law that tracks out-of-state ammunition sales and mandates face-to-face purchases for bullets. The NRA lost that challenge. Four years later, it was back in court, this time suing former California Attorney General Kamala Harris over the fees that gun-buyers pay to support background checks. The NRA argued those fees infringe on the Second Amendment rights of Californians. It lost that case, too. Most recently, the Firearms Policy Coalition has sued Attorney General Xavier Becerra, attempting to challenge California’s new ban on high-capacity magazines.

With the NRA and FPC challenging elements of background checks and out-of-state gun regulations in court, even a signature from Brown might not end the battle over Gipson’s bill.

“At least in court they’re supposed to base their decisions on the law,” DeLuz said. “And we’ve found we have a better chance to make our case there and be heard on the facts.”

An avid builder of firearms, Mike Turner doesn’t think much of the gun lobbies or lawmakers.

Turner has used his legally owned firearms to fend off home invaders on two occasions in his Antelope neighborhood, including one incident in which he traded gunfire with an alleged robber who is now standing trial in Sacramento (read “Ghost guns kill,” News, March 22, 2018). Five years before either of those quick-draw encounters, Turner drew his gun in a different situation, one that shaped his view of gun laws in California.

In 2011, it was still legal for licensed gun owners to openly carry their firearms in public, a right Turner often availed himself of. One night, he drove his motorcycle to the Denny’s on Auburn Boulevard. He had a GoPro-style camera on his belt and a Sigma 9mm strapped to his hip. Turner says an SUV squealed into the parking lot. The driver exited and began assaulting his female passenger. Turner says he objected and the man started heading toward him in an aggressive manner. Turner says he jacked a clip into his pistol and backed up, thumbing 911 into a cellphone with his free hand. Turner says the stranger kept coming but stopped when he heard Turner tell a dispatcher, “I’m going to shoot him.”

Turner says the man got into the SUV and drove away. Arriving sheriff’s deputies reviewed the recording from Turner’s belt camera and concluded that he was justified in pulling his sidearm. But there was something about the exchange that bothered Turner.

“Their first concern wasn’t finding the lady who’d been beaten, it was finding out if my gun was legal,” Turner recalled.

Another standoff that year also left a sour taste. Turner says he was shopping at a Costco in Roseville with his mother-in-law and his trusty 9mm holstered at his side. By the time Turner reached the checkout line, he says he was surrounded by eight police officers. Checking that his gun was licensed and unloaded, the officers explained that a slew of terrified customers had complained to 911. They didn’t know the law, Turner says.

That law changed in 2012 when Gov. Brown finally banned open carry in California. Annoyed, Turner studied the legislation and realized that it didn’t include rifles. He says he decided to protest by walking to his local gas station with a 12-gauge slung over his shoulder. Before he could buy his cigarettes, Turner says, a cavalcade of sheriff’s deputies surrounded him. Eventually a captain who was familiar with the law arrived and Turner was off the hook. The governor banned open carry for rifles a few months later. To this day, Turner is convinced most Californians don’t stay informed on changing gun laws. He also cites the repeal of open carry as a prime example of legislation that had an unintended effect, since it drove scores of people to apply for concealed carry weapons permits, which especially surged in Sacramento County.

“I’d rather see people carrying a gun on their hip, maybe with a visible permit on their belt, than be out in the public and notice that someone has a hidden gun on them,” Turner said. “If I notice a hidden gun, I’m way more worried.”

Though Turner enjoys building ghost guns, he’s not opposed to a system that keeps unfinished lower receivers out of criminals’ hands. He favors making manufacturers employ computer chip technology, or at least brand receivers with serial numbers from the minute they’re produced.

As for Gipson’s new bill, Turner says it won’t stop all illegal acquisitions of unfinished lower receivers, since there are machinists who can make that part out of a solid block of aluminum that can’t be traced. He also notes that lower receivers can be easily bought at gun shows in Nevada.

Wilcox doesn’t disagree with either of those contentions, though she still thinks Gipson’s bill is a step in the right direction.

“It takes some wherewithal to drive to Nevada, so why are we making it so easy right now to get ghost guns in California?” she said. “With any public health approach, we’re not going to stop it all, we’re going to reduce the rates. And in the case of ghost guns, that means saving lives.”

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