Ghost guns — No serial number means no background check

Ghost guns — No serial number means no background check

Everything we’ve been working on in California for the last 30 years in gun violence prevention is being undermined by ghost guns.

People who know me know that I’m not usually given to dramatic statements like that. But I’ve had my eye on ghost guns for years, ever since I was in law enforcement. Now, the Glendale, California, office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) says that ghost guns make up 30 percent of its confiscated firearms. Its Los Angeles field office says that they make up 41 percent.

That’s why ghost guns have gone from a blip on my radar screen to the kind of thing that keeps me up at night.

What is a ghost gun? Why is it dangerous?

A ghost gun is an untraceable, unserialized firearm made from a kit.

At the heart of most such kits is an unfinished part known as an “80% receiver,” “80% finished,” “receiver blank,” “80% complete” or “unfinished receiver.” (Note that ATF does not use or endorse the terms I’m using here to describe ghost guns.) A ghost gun is made from that unfinished part, which doesn’t meet the definition of “firearm frame” or “receiver” found in the federal Gun Control Act of 1968. So, among other things, it does not require a serial number, the way a finished part does.

A ghost gun starts out as components that, with readily available tools and minimal mechanical expertise, people can take from that 80 percent to 100 percent. They then have a lethal weapon without a serial number.

A ghost gun is dangerous for a variety of reasons:

  • It’s doesn’t have a serial number.
  • Without a serial number, it cannot be traced when it is used in a crime.
  • It can be easily sold online.
  • Purchasing such a kit doesn’t require a background check, so the people we had in mind when we worked for background-check laws can obtain one.

The marketplace realities of ghost guns are also dangerous. For one thing, a ghost gun kit for a Polymer80 Glock pistol can cost only two-thirds as much as an equivalent, finished, serialized Glock, removing an important barrier to purchase.

For another, the trade in ghost guns effectively pushes out regulated firearm dealers who, by and large, regulate themselves and one another. When those dealers follow the rules, it helps the cause of gun violence prevention. Ghost guns are a way around those rules and around that legitimate sales channel.

What can we do about ghost guns?

Ghost guns are the logical result of a loophole in the law that specifies what does and what does not require a serial number. An unfinished receiver rides straight through that loophole onto somebody’s workbench, then into the hand of a gun owner. For more background, have a look at my presentation, “Ghost Guns — What Are They and Why Should You Care?

In California, the ghost gun trend started as a way to end-run California’s sensible gun laws, particularly the laws on assault weapons. Although California is normally in the vanguard of gun legislation, other states are making admirable progress we need to catch up to:

California’s governor and attorney general have a leadership role to play in dealing with the scourge of ghost guns.

If they don’t play it, then we’ll have to pressure our legislators to play it.

 

Steve Lindley is the Program Manager for Brady United in California and a 27-year law enforcement veteran.  Before joining Brady, he worked at the California Department of Justice where he served as chief of the Bureau of Firearms and oversaw the Division of Law Enforcement.  He has testified in over 80 firearm-related legislative hearings, collaborated on more than 100 firearm-related bills, and assisted in authoring and implementing California’s landmark Ammunition Background check initiative.  Steve started his career with the National City Police Department.

photo credit: Steve Lindley

GOTV 4 GVP — Getting Out the Vote for Gun Violence Prevention!

GOTV 4 GVP — Getting Out the Vote for Gun Violence Prevention!

What if you opened your ballot this autumn and saw this question:

Shall we eliminate gun violence in America?   □ Yes □ No

For most of us, it would be easy to vote in favor of that, wouldn’t it?

It’s a nice piece of wishful thinking, but things probably won’t go that way.

Occasionally, gun violence prevention (GVP) efforts result in high-profile ballot measures, like California’s Proposition 63, passed in 2016. Prop 63 prohibited the possession of large-capacity ammunition magazines and required certain individuals to pass a background check in order to purchase ammunition. Washington’s Initiative 1639 also passed in 2016; it raised the minimum age to purchase a gun to 21, added background checks and increased waiting periods.

It’s a drag about all the lawsuits that follow. But they’re part of the long haul we’ve signed up for.

Small electoral steps toward gun violence prevention

Still, our voices are making a difference, as they did in the Virginia legislative election in 2019. There was nothing on the ballot as cut-and-dry as “Shall we eliminate gun violence in Virginia?” However, there were other measures (and people) on the ballot that led to electoral victories. As a result, Virginia’s governor and lawmakers have been equipped to pass meaningful, common-sense legislation designed to prevent gun violence.

In fact, where GVP meets the ballot, the most common steps are small ones. That’s why we work to elect GVP-minded judges, city councilmembers, county supervisors, state representatives and even school board members. Gun violence prevention candidates show they will lead with gun safety in mind, whether at the top of the ballot or the bottom.

For that matter, in a year like this, we encourage you to look even deeper than the ballot.

The problem of voting access

We like the Voting Access Saves Lives campaign that our member organization Brady United has kicked off with two youth groups: Team ENOUGH and March for Our Lives. If the way to end gun violence is through votes, then this campaign goes a level deeper: to voting access. For everybody.

As they point out, if you are Black in America, you are 10 times more likely to be the victim of a gun homicide than a white person. Yet an estimated 1 out of every 13 Black Americans cannot vote due to a past conviction — four times the rate of other Americans.

Lengthy polling lines and wait times are most likely to happen in Black and Brown communities. Data shows that voters in majority-Black neighborhoods are more likely to wait longer than those in majority-white neighborhoods. A 2019 study based on smartphone data found that residents of entirely Black neighborhoods waited 29% longer to vote. They were 74% more likely to spend more than 30 minutes at their polling place. And in Arizona’s 2016 primary election, poll closures disproportionately impacted the city’s Latinx population, resulting in almost double the time waiting to vote.

The problem of human nature

Then, there’s that vexing human factor.

“Why doesn’t EVERYbody vote?!” you ask in despair, pulling your hair and worrying about the near future.

For a solid century the League of Women Voters has been guided by that question. More than thinking about it, they’ve been doing something about it. We like the list they’ve published with 100 ways to get ready for election day. Among them:

5. Learn about early and mail-in voting opportunities in your state.

10. Find out who’s funding the candidates running for office on your ballot. (FollowTheMoney.orgis a good resource for this.)

16. Check if you need an ID to vote. Some states require it.

38. Check in with a young person in your life. Are they registered? Do they need help voting?

66. Join the People Powered Fair MapsTMcampaign as a volunteer to stop gerrymandering.

76. Demand action from Congress to protect the 2020 election. Call your Senators today at 1-888-415-4527 to ask them to include $4 billion in funding to secure our elections in the next stimulus package (or fill out our contact form).

The vote: Use it or lose it

Again, with the power of the vote we can change gun laws. Just know that it will take you more than checking a “Yes” box on one ballot.

It’s a long road to get the kind of gun laws you want by voting. Meanwhile, keep in mind the words of the late Rep. John Lewis (D-GA):

“Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful non-violent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.”

John White is a volunteer with SD4GVP.

 

If you’re a gun seller in this pandemic, business is great

If you’re a gun seller in this pandemic, business is great

Guns and ammo are leaping off the shelf. People can’t get enough of them. Customers are lining up outside the door, eager to buy a firearm, you know, just in case things go sideways and they have to defend themselves or their family.

In March, more than 3.7 million total firearm checks were initiated through the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, the best-available proxy for gun sales in the United States.

And, no sooner did talk start about essential and non-essential businesses than gun stores, the NRA and gun buyers made it clear how they define “essential.”

First of all, if you really need that gun, at least store it safely

If you really believe that having a firearm and ammunition is as important right now as, say, rice or eggs or bathroom tissue or tending to your stay-at-home children, then you and I will have to disagree.

But do yourself a favor and learn about safe storage, which will help end family fire and reduce the likelihood of guns going off in the home. Guns stored unsafely in a house with domestic violence are like matches next to a powder keg.

Do your children (or any other people in your home) know where you keep your guns? Can they find them while you’re out of the house? Assume “yes” to both. Get a locked container and keep your guns and ammo in it.

“Please stop shooting. We need the beds.”

Elinore Kaufman observes that gun violence has killed as many people this year as coronavirus.

Elinore could be just another person like me, worried about all the guns and working for gun-violence prevention.

But she’s not. She works in surgical critical care and trauma surgery at the University of Pennsylvania. She’s worried about the number of beds she needs in her intensive care unit. She can’t free up enough beds because gunshot victims are competing with COVID-19 patients for them.

“Neighborhoods and communities that are already at increased risk for violence because of systemic racism and poverty will suffer [because of the pandemic],” she writes, “and violence in those areas may increase even further.” She’s asking for “strategies that range from licensing laws for firearm dealers and purchasers, to red-flag laws, to making data available to researchers, to community-based focused deterrence programs.”

She’s not saying that to reduce gun sales. She’s saying that because she and her staff need the hospital beds.

If a gun-buying spree in a pandemic troubles you, vote for change

Isn’t it ironic that both gun stores and hospitals are considered essential businesses? You can make the case that one feeds the other.

COVID-19 has taken America by surprise; however, the epidemic of gun violence in America has not. And our legislators have never found the political stomach to address it.

Still, I get it: You have other things on your mind during the coronavirus pandemic besides record numbers of firearm purchases. And your confidence in the ability of elected leaders to “insure domestic tranquility” may not be very high as we try to get through this.

So we’ll all have to work this year to elect people who will pass sensible gun laws and appoint sensible judges — people who will behave with public safety in mind when the next crisis hits.

We see a glimmer of hope from Rhode Island, where the governor extended the time period from seven days to thirty days for police departments to conduct background checks for concealed weapons and firearms. And a coalition of 16 Democratic U.S. senators is expressing concerns about guns ending up in the hands of prohibited purchasers.

More guns don’t make people safer. Least of all from coronavirus.

More people with more guns cooped up for longer. What could go wrong?

Again, if you know people who really need to buy a gun right now, urge them to store it safely. And don’t let your child play at their house until they do.

And if you’re overwhelmed right now and have to move gun-violence prevention to the back burner, go ahead. We’ll help you make sure that it doesn’t fall off the stove entirely. After all, if we don’t keep raising the issue — even during a pandemic — then who will?

John White is a volunteer with San Diegans for Gun Violence Prevention.

photo credit: Seth Anderson

How to Obtain a Gun Violence Restraining Order (GVRO)

How to Obtain a Gun Violence Restraining Order (GVRO)

First things first

Afraid someone you know or love will harm themselves or others with a gun? In California, a Gun Violence Restraining Order (GVRO) can protect you and the ones you love.

If you know of anyone who poses an immediate danger of gun injury to themselves or to others, call 911. A trained officer will investigate immediately and, if warranted, can petition a judge to obtain an emergency GVRO at any time of the day or night. The emergency GVRO allows the officer to take away any firearms or ammunition the person possesses or has access to and prohibits them from acquiring any more until there is a court hearing. Emergency GVROs have prevented many suicides and saved the lives of many people threatened by boyfriends, ex-spouses, co-workers, classmates and others.

In almost every instance of a mass shooting, the shooter told someone of their intentions. California’s GVRO law is based on a well-established principle: You can always give back a gun, but you cannot give back a life.

“I wish we could have gotten the guns out of their control before somebody got hurt.”

People around this country, this state and even this city find themselves saying that all the time.

They say it because of “family fire,” the accidental shootings with a misused or improperly stored gun in the home that injure or kill 8 children and teens a day.

They say it because of domestic violence, as 52 women are shot and killed by an intimate partner in an average month.

They say it because of suicide incidents, 51 percent of which are by firearm.

They say it because they hear a co-worker or fellow student make a threat.

In 17 states and the District of Columbia, citizens have said “ENOUGH!” to wishing they had had the guns removed before somebody got hurt. They have passed Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO) laws, or “red flag” laws, which we call Gun Violence Restraining Order (GVRO) laws in California.

A GVRO is a civil court order that temporarily prevents someone from possessing, accessing or purchasing firearms and ammunition when the person is at risk of attempting suicide or harming others. Because a GVRO is a civil procedure, the person from whom the firearms are temporarily removed will not have a criminal record — unless they violate the judge’s order.

Often, family members do not know how to go about removing the guns or are afraid to do so, particularly if the person has dementia or PTSD, or is experiencing depression or a temporary mental health crisis. When family or co-workers inform the police of their fear of an immediate threat, a GVRO allows the San Diego Police Department to remove firearms temporarily, when warranted. A GVRO provides an opportunity to get care for the person at risk (known as the “respondent”) and takes away the fear that possession of the gun could lead to serious injury or death.

Who can request a gun violence restraining order?

Law enforcement, family and household members can request a GVRO in San Diego. That includes spouses, parents, grandparents, children, stepparents, stepchildren, domestic partners, siblings, and roommates and persons who have regularly resided in the last six months on the same property as the respondent.

I am a family or household member. How do I request a GVRO?

  1. If you are afraid and you believe that somebody in your family or household poses an immediate danger of injury from firearms to themselves, to you or to others, call 911. A police officer can obtain an Emergency GVRO 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The GVRO empowers the officer to remove the guns and ammunition.
  2. If you live in the city of San Diego and there is no immediate danger of injury, call the SDPD at 619-531-2000. A police officer can obtain a Temporary GVRO at any time of the day or night.
  3. Go to a local police station and ask for assistance in obtaining a GVRO.

Do I have to go through the police to get a GVRO? Are there other ways?

There are other ways to request a GVRO, such as with the help of an attorney. In San Diego, however, there are advantages to working with law enforcement officers:

  1. They are experts in handling dangerous situations and people with firearms; private citizens are not. Once a petition for a Temporary GVRO is granted, it must be served on the respondent. When police officers serve the order, they immediately seize all firearms and ammunition. But when the order is served by a private citizen, the respondent has 24 hours to comply, either by taking his guns and ammunition to the police or by storing them with a gun dealer and providing proof to the court. A lot can happen in those 24 hours, including an attack on the threatened party or the stashing of guns with friends for later use.
  2. Evidence that will hold up in court is very important. Police officers know how to gather evidence that the respondent is a threat to him-/herself or others. Most private citizens do not have that expertise.
  3. Working through the San Diego Police Department is free; hiring a private attorney is not.

After the respondent is served and the firearms are removed, what happens?

In San Diego, the initial GVRO lasts 21 days, during which time a hearing occurs. If the respondent wishes to contest the order, he or she must attend. At the hearing, the judge will hear evidence about whether the possession of guns by the respondent poses a danger to him-/herself or others, and decide whether to continue or cancel the temporary order. If the judge decides to continue the temporary order, the GVRO will last up to one year.

Are GVROs “No Contact” orders?

No, GVROs do not prevent the respondent from having contact with you, your children, your family members or others who live with you. And they can’t force the respondent to move out of your home. For more information about other types of restraining orders, including those for domestic violence, civil harassment, elder or dependent adult abuse and workplace violence, visit: www.courts.ca.gov/1260.htm.

Where can I get more information on obtaining a GVRO?

Visit Speak for Safety. You’ll find an entire website for the kinds of people who ask questions about having guns removed before somebody gets hurt or killed:

  • Family and household
  • Health care providers
  • Veterans
  • Eldercare providers
  • Fiduciaries
  • Public health
  • Attorneys
  • Law enforcement

GVRO laws are relatively recent in California, and not everyone knows how they work. If you need help from somebody unfamiliar with GVROs, direct them to Speak for Safety for more information.

Do GVROs really work?

Yes. In 2019 alone, the San Diego City Attorney’s Office, with significant support from the San Diego Police Department, obtained GVROs against 200 individuals who posed a threat to themselves or others.

Obtaining a GVRO requires effort and, in some cases, courage.

But it can mean the difference between “I wish we could have gotten the guns out of their control before somebody got hurt” and “I’m so glad we got the guns out of their control before somebody got hurt.”

John White is a volunteer with San Diegans for Gun Violence Prevention.

Photo credit: Lisa Roe