Candles and a donated flower arrangement surround a photo Clare Orton at a candlelight vigil held in Walnut Creek on July 26, 2015, in her memory. (George Kelly/Bay Area News Group)
WALNUT CREEK — In the hours after police here came upon a grisly murder-suicide scene in the doorway of a suburban home last month — two college students who were once friends lay dead from gunshot wounds — the focus of their investigation immediately turned to the weapons.
Neither of the handguns Scott Bertics took with him on July 21 — the morning he shot 19-year-old Clare Orton, then himself — registered a serial number.
It didn’t take long for Walnut Creek police Lt. Lanny Edwards to figure out the reason: Bertics, a 21-year-old former Stanford engineering student, built the gun himself with parts that can mostly be purchased legally online.
“Honestly,” Edwards said, “until this case, I wasn’t real familiar with the topic. It’s not something we’ve seen.”
It may be unusual in Walnut Creek, but what Bertics did connects to a simmering issue nationwide: The potential dangers of hard-to-trace “ghost guns,” which might be assembled from purchased parts, fashioned with sophisticated machining tools or even created with a 3-D printer.
Gun owners’ groups say concerns about such guns are overblown, noting that existing law subjects the critical part of a homemade gun — the “lower receiver” that contains the firing mechanisms — to all the same legal controls as a purchased gun, including criminal background checks and gun registration.
But gun control advocates say it’s easier to dodge those requirements when buying a receiver, and easier for a skilled hobbyist to make the receiver himself.
The lower receivers on Bertics’ guns carried no serial number, suggesting they may have been purchased illegally, although police would not confirm that. Nor, citing the sensitivity of their ongoing investigation, would they say what a background check on Bertics might have revealed.
Police don’t have statistics on how many homemade guns are on the streets or used in crimes in California, in part because they become aware of them only when a crime is committed and the weapons are found. Also, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives doesn’t classify types of illegal guns, and the FBI does not differentiate between stolen guns and those that are put together illegally.
Among the most notorious in U.S. history crimes where a homemade gun was used was the case of John Zawahri, who went on a rampage at a Santa Monica college in 2013, killing five people before being killed by police.
Zawahri, who had a history of mental illness, built the assault rifle he used in the shooting himself to avoid a background check. He obtained the lower receiver illegally.
The incident unnerved gun control proponents.
“Our goal is to make sure there is a background check,” said Amanda Wilcox, the legislation and policy chair for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence in California and Nevada. “It’s a problem. It’s used as a way to avoid our background check requirement. We have them for good reason.”
Sen. Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, considered the seeming proliferation of homemade guns of concern enough to introduce Senate Bill 808, the “Ghost Gun” Bill last year, which would have banned the sale or transfer of home-built firearms. His concern, he told reporters at the time, was that “there is no way to know if criminals or other dangerous individuals are circumventing firearm laws by making these guns.”
Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill, to the delight of gun advocates in California, a state that already has the toughest gun control laws in the country. But according to gun advocates and law enforcement officials, it also has 10,000 to 20,000 citizens armed illegally.
“You are always going to have people with illegal guns,” said Brandon Combs, president of the California Association of Federal Arms Licensees. “But the vast majority of the people who make these guns are law-abiding citizens and use them very legally. The reality is, it sort of contradicts itself to say that police rarely find these guns at crime scenes but that they are out there in bulk and readily and easily available.”
The reality, too, is that making a gun is nothing new.
“People have been putting guns together since the Constitution was written,” said Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of America.
Not that it’s easy to do. “You don’t have to be an engineer, but you can’t just take a file and a drill and start making one of these things,” Paredes continued. “You’ve got to use power tools in order to take block or plastic or aluminum or steel and hollow out cavities within the caption. You have to perfectly drill holes in proper alignment. … Critics will say it’s easy for anyone to do it, but anybody who says that has never had the experience of building a firearm.”
As for the cost and time of such a project, the accessory parts run anywhere from $500 to $2,000 depending on the desired gun. Unless expertly done, the building process is long and tedious.
“Without the sophistication of $750,000 machining tools, it can take a long, long time, weeks and weeks,” Paredes said.
That’s why local law enforcement officials and prosecutors don’t believe Bertics’ choice of weapon is indicative of a greater trend.
“Not at all,” Contra Costa Deputy District Attorney Barry Grove said. “The truth is, people that want to use a gun to commit a crime are far more likely to steal them off the street. That’s just the reality of it.”