What follows is a chronicle of my attempt to purchase a handgun in California. Whether for or against the possession of personal firearms, I encourage you to continue reading. I believe my experience will cause both sides to question the current state of our gun laws. For the sake of background, I didn’t have guns in my home as a kid. I didn’t handle a gun until I joined the US Army at age 18. Since then, I’ve been around firearms. Since being held up gunpoint at age 22, I’ve owned a pistol for personal protection. For the past 18 years, I’ve served as a law enforcement professional. I go to the range multiple times a year and am proficient in the use of pistols and long guns. By every measure, I’m a guy you want owning and carrying a gun.
Recently, my agency updated their policy to include a number of brands and calibers for off-duty carry. Previously, we were restricted to the Sig Sauer brand (a fine firearm), and my off-duty carry was a Sig Sauer P239 .357 caliber pistol. It’s only slightly shorter and slimmer than our issued weapon. It’s not a great weapon for concealment but a great and reliable weapon should you need it during a, I dunno, a rhino stampede? With the off-duty weapon update, I wanted a smaller, more concealable pistol. I set my sites (pun sorta intended) on the 9mm Smith & Wesson M&P Shield.
My first stop was my local gun shop. They had the pistol I wanted but with some “California” modifications. For starters, there was a manual thumb safety. This modification is against my agency’s policy so I was unable to purchase this firearm. We don’t have manual safeties on our pistols. Instead, we practice the safe handling of firearms believing that you only pull the weapon with the intent to use it and your finger is the only and ultimate safety. In addition to the thumb safety there was a ridiculous tactile indicator on the top of the weapon which popped up when a magazine was inserted into the weapon. The tactile indicator reads: “Loaded When Up”. I was truly astonished by this feature. It looks cartoonish on a pistol. It makes it look like a toy gun. Thinking this must have been mandated by our state government in some attempt to reduce shootings of people who brandished unloaded firearms, I asked the gun shop owner about the intended purpose of this feature. The shop owner went on to explain the numerous regulations California imposes on gun manufacturers to allow them to sell their guns in California. He explained that most of the regulations don’t accomplish anything other than making compliance on the part of gun manufacturers more difficult. “They’re just hoping the gun makers will find compliance too difficult and stop selling guns inCalifornia.” This is an interesting notion: a state making a lawful and Constitutionally protected transaction more difficult so as to make it impractical; and for the sole purpose that they don’t approve of the transaction. Several states have also taken this approach to death penalty injection drugs. Their reasoning, I speculate, “if you can’t win the argument on merit, win it on a technicality”. As I was a law enforcement agent, I was told I could order a non-California compliant model from the manufacturer. The price I was quoted was well over $200 what the pistol was retailing for in other states. Since I was about to head out of state for work, I decided to postpone my purchase.
I went to Florida for a little over a week and decided to see if I couldn’t find the pistol I wanted in the Sunshine State. The local gun shop I visited had the pistol in question but, even with my credentials, noted they’d have to send the pistol to a Federal Firearms Licensed (FFL) dealer in California. The pistol was still crazy expensive so I decided to do some additional shopping.
At some point in my quest I was made aware of several websites in which person to person gun transactions were facilitated. While inFlorida, I checked these websites and found the pistol I wanted. It was nearby and was reasonably priced. I sent the seller an inquiry. It was 10:30 at night. I heard back from him within 30minutes with an offer for me to come to his home that evening to purchase the pistol. I asked if we needed an FFL dealer to conduct the transaction, he said we did not. He was correct. He assured me he had all the paperwork showing the pistol was purchased legally. He seemed legitimate. However, me being me, I told him I’d feel better if we could meet at the local gun shop and do the official transfer paperwork. This would cost me an additional $50 but would ensure the pistol wasn’t stolen. It would also ensure that I wasn’t a felon purchasing a firearm. Before we were able to finalize our arrangements, another buyer agreed to purchase the pistol, no questions asked. With no extra hoops to jump through, the seller sold the pistol to the new buyer. The more I think about this process, the more the concept doesn’t feel quite right. These person to person sales completely circumvent any reasonable laws we have in place to ensure criminals don’t get their hands on a firearm, right? Then again, one could argue (and has argued), we allow person to person auto sales and cars kill WAAAAY more people than guns. A look at the last known year’s statistics for each revealed there were 13,286 firearm deaths in 2015 (not including suicides) compared to 40,100 auto fatalities in 2017. I think one major difference in the two (and not accounted for in either study) is intentional death in the use of a firearm vs an automobile. Common sense would tell me that death with a firearm is largely intentional whereas death with an automobile is largely accidental. Another major difference with auto sales is that both parties are then required to note the transfer of ownership with their state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. If a new buyer doesn’t register a car, the previous owner gets taxed for a car he no longer owns and the lack of registration by the new owner is brought to light and quickly remedied. In light of this, shouldn’t we require all person to person firearm sales to undergo the same registration process as automobiles with all gun sales going through a FFL? I am now convinced we should.
In talking to a very knowledgeable coworker, I learned of a few online retailers with better pricing for the pistol I was looking for. After some brief comparative shopping I was able to find the pistol I wanted at a Houston, Texas shop for about $200 below the retail price being offered inCalifornia. In order to purchase the non-California compliant version of the pistol and have it sent to California I needed to provide proof to the Houston shop that I was a law enforcement officer. Additionally, I needed to find a FFL dealer in my area who would receive the pistol for me and complete the transfer. This wasn’t terribly difficult, but did incur the extra costs of about $100 ($50 transfer fee, $25 Dealer Record of Sale (DRoS) fee and CA sales tax). It took about 4 days for my pistol to arrive from Houston. When it did I went to my local gun shop where I proceeded to fill out all of the standard paperwork for a gun purchase. This subjects me to a Department of Justice (DOJ) background check and registers the gun in my name, The background check seems unnecessarily redundant given my profession and the understanding I couldn’t serve in my profession if I had previously failed any portion of this check. Additionally, I’m also subject to the state’s 10-day waiting or ‘cooling off’ period before taking ownership of my new pistol. While not wholly unreasonable, I already have several guns with which to commit evil were that my intention. Seems a silly mandate for existing lawful gun owners.
Next came the conundrum of selling my previous off-duty weapon. This is an off-roster gun in California. This means that gun shops aren’t allowed to sell it in the state, but private parties can sell these pistols to other private parties. In that they’re somewhat prohibited, I’m told I can sell it for a few hundred dollars over what I paid for it 10 years ago. I could also sell it to a private party in another state – with no hassle. However, if I do a private party sale, I risk selling it to a party of unknown background. This seems wildly irresponsible. In the end, I sold it locally and insisted the new buyer undergo the DOJ background check – which he was happy to do.
Our Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms. With this profound right ought to come a modicum of responsibility. I feel the same way about the other enumerated rights as well. A free press ought to come with the responsibility to be an independent and honest press. A right to vote ought to come with a responsibility to understand the issues and candidates at hand. And while I’ve learned I can’t have everything I want anytime I want in a free society, I know I can personally do more to make it a more secure and responsible society. And so can you.