Last week, Law Center Executive Director Robyn Thomas and Michael McLively, one of our staff attorneys, published an article, “Sighting the Homemade Gun Threat” in the Daily Journal. Outlining two potential gun laws, Senate Bill 199 and Senate Bill 808, which Governor Brown signed and vetoed respectively, the article discusses the dangers of homemade guns and the impending threat of 3-D printed guns as they gain popularity. Originally published in both print and online, here is the article shared in full.
Sighting the Homemade Gun Threat
Gov. Jerry Brown made headlines last week by signing Assembly Bill 1014, a bill that will establish an innovative “Gun Violence Restraining Order” procedure in California. On the same day, two lesser-known bills, Senate Bill 199 and Senate Bill 808, were signed and vetoed by the governor, respectively, without generating much notice. Despite their relatively low profile, these bills deserve our attention as they provide interesting insights into some of the critical gun issues we’ll be facing in California looking forward.
The Serious Danger of Homemade Guns
Last Tuesday, Brown vetoed SB 808, which was an initial attempt to regulate the serious threat posed by homemade firearms. The bill would have required all such guns to be registered with the California Department of Justice and given a serial number.
This would have been a small step in the right direction by giving state authorities a better idea of just how many homemade guns are out there, but much more needs to be done in order to effectively nip this growing menace in the bud. Brown’s veto of this bill provides an opportunity to revisit this issue afresh and to reconsider the best way to properly address this problem in 2015, before it is too late.
Homemade firearms come from two main sources: the assembly of what are known as “partial receivers,” and 3D printing. Each presents its own set of unique problems and concerns.
A partial receiver is a partially finished metal component that holds the basic mechanisms that allow a gun to operate. Partial receivers are not regulated federally or at the state level. They can be purchased without a background check and turned into a fully functioning firearm with a relatively cheap and simple mechanical process that takes only one to seven hours to complete.
Partial receivers provide a way for mass-murderers and other criminals to skirt California’s otherwise strong gun laws, including mandatory background checks and the state’s prohibition on assault weapons. Using a partial receiver allows a person to build a functional assault rifle in a matter of hours. A recent and devastating shooting in Santa Monica highlights this danger all too well. John Zawahri failed a gun-purchase background check before deciding to buy an unfinished receiver and assembling his own assault rifle, which he then used in a terrible attack that left five dead, including Zawahri.
Despite the obvious dangers posed by partial receivers, the startling reality is that authorities have no idea exactly how many have been sold. In an interview with the Washington Post last year, one San Francisco-based ATF agent admitted that the numbers are unknown, although high, and estimated the figure to be “tens of thousands, just in California.” Also alarming is that, according to law enforcement officials, firearms built with unfinished receivers are increasingly being found at crime scenes.
Meaningful regulation of partial receivers is long overdue. Requiring background checks on partial receiver sales would be a good place to start, especially since these parts have no use other than the assembly of a dangerous firearm. In addition, maintaining sales records of partial receivers and requiring them to bear a unique serial number would help law enforcement officials to trace homemade guns which turn up at a crime scene.
Partial receivers represent an immediate problem that needs to be dealt with now, but in the near future, 3D-printed guns may present an even graver threat.
3D printing technology is on the rise – becoming cheaper and faster by the day – allowing a person to download the schematics for a fully operational firearm and then literally print it at home. Such firearms are generally made of plastic, making them invisible to metal detectors.
Federal and state laws do not prohibit the private possession of mostly plastic 3D-printed guns. Unless new measures are adopted, nothing will stop such guns from being printed at home by anyone, including convicted felons, without even a simple background check.
While early prototype 3D-printed guns have generally only fired a single shot, the technology is rapidly evolving. Last year, a developer in Canada recorded a demonstration of a 3D-printed rifle which fired 14 shots before cracking. After the test, the developer announced that schematics would be available online for anyone to download.
3D-printed guns give criminals a new and easy way to completely circumvent California’s otherwise smart, comprehensive gun laws. In fact, Cody Wilson, the anarchist founder of Defense Distributed, the organization that developed the first 3Dprinted handgun and distributed the blueprint on the Internet last year, has openly stated that his project is a way to get around laws about who is allowed to own a firearm.
3D-printing also provides a method to bypass California’s strong safety standards for handguns. These include requirements that all handguns sold in the state meet strict safety testing standards and be equipped with safety features such as loaded-chamber indicators.
At present, nothing prevents a person from printing a shoddy plastic handgun at home utterly lacking these basic safety features – endangering not only the user, but also innocent bystanders and children tempted to play with such a gun. Without some level of sensible regulation, nothing will prevent the proliferation of the sort of low quality, unsafe handguns that we’ve worked so hard to keep off of our streets. As the technology gap begins to close, it is reasonable that 3D-printed guns should be regulated at least as much as traditional firearms.
In the realm of firearm regulations, too often our laws only move forward in the wake of an avoidable tragedy. Homemade guns, both partial receivers and 3D-printed guns, present California with the unique opportunity to address and head off a dangerous problem before it develops into a full-fledged crisis.
Last Tuesday, Brown signed SB 199, which will require imitation guns, such as BB and airsoft guns, to utilize bright markings to distinguish them from real guns. This law was enacted in response to several heartbreaking, high-profile tragedies that have occurred in California over the past several years where law enforcement officers have shot and killed innocent young people, mistaking their toys for real weapons.
A 1990 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics during a five-year period identified 1,128 incidents where police officers warned or threatened to use force and 252 cases where actual force was used based on a mistaken belief that an imitation firearm was real.
While SB 199 is a step in the right direction, there is another side of the issue which must also be addressed. Shockingly, nothing prevents firearm manufactures from making real guns that look like harmless toys.
Pennsylvania-based manufacturer Keystone Sporting Arms, for example, makes a line of tiny “Crickett” .22 caliber rifles which are designed for use by children. Their tag line is “My First Rifle,” and these guns come in bright color schemes like hot pink, royal blue and multicolor swirls. These guns have already led to heart-wrenching disaster. In Kentucky last year, a 5-year-old boy used a Crickett rifle, given to him as a birthday gift, to accidentally shoot and kill his 2-year-old sister.
In addition to the danger posed by child misuse, these weapons also make it difficult for law enforcement to know if they are dealing with a toy or a real weapon when making split-second decisions in the field. If imitation guns are to be brightly colored to distinguish them from real guns, it follows that real guns should not be brightly colored. Fewer lethal mistakes will be made in a world where real firearms look like real firearms and toys look like toys.
A sensible solution would be to prohibit manufacturers from producing firearms in bright, playful colors that make them appealing to children and easily confused with toy guns. To help prevent confusion by law enforcement officers, the law should also impose a penalty on any person who paints or otherwise alters a firearm to look like a toy. Ideally, we should also enact legislation to prevent the gun industry from marketing firearms directly to children, similar to laws enacted in the past to protect kids from cigarettes.
Prohibiting the production or possession of deceptive-looking firearms which are easily mistaken for harmless toys would help protect our children and our law enforcement officers from unnecessary injury and death.
Robyn Thomas is the executive director of the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and Michael McLively is a staff attorney there. The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence strongly supports measures to deal with the threat posed by homemade guns and deceptively colored firearms. Progress in these areas will help avert future disasters and will keep California at the forefront of gun violence prevention.