Here’s an odd story out of California that dates back nearly a decade but I’m only just hearing about it now. It deals with a man named Joseph Roh who lived in a suburb of Los Angeles. After a lengthy BATFE investigation, it was determined that Roh had been illegally manufacturing AR-15 style, semiautomatic rifles (without serial numbers) in his own warehouse. What’s more, he had been selling them for $1,000 a pop to people, many of whom were not legally allowed to purchase a firearm due to having a criminal record. In fact, one of his customers turned out to be John Zawahri, who you may recall from a mass shooting in Santa Monica in 2013.
Simple enough, right? Lock the guy up. Even the most strident Second Amendment supporters don’t want freelance gunsmiths circumventing the law and arming criminals. And yet, after years of investigation and legal gymnastics, California decided to quietly let the guy go earlier this year. How the heck did that happen? (Mercury News)
The judge in the case had issued a tentative order that, in the eyes of prosecutors, threatened to upend the decades-old Gun Control Act and “seriously undermine the ATF’s ability to trace and regulate firearms nationwide.”
A case once touted by prosecutors as a crackdown on an illicit firearms factory was suddenly seen as having the potential to pave the way to unfettered access to one of the most demonized guns in America.
Federal authorities preferred to let Roh go free rather than have the ruling become final and potentially create case law that could have a crippling effect on the enforcement of gun laws, several sources familiar with the matter told CNN. Each requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the case and its possible implications.
Roh appears to have gotten off the hook by way of one of the oddest technicalities in recent memory. Because of some obscure codicils in the Gun Control Act, the judge was responding to claims from the defense in a way that might have declared what Roh was doing to be at least mostly legal.
How is that possible? Roh apparently wasn’t selling completely finished weapons. It’s legal for anyone to manufacture or sell nearly all of the components that go into making a firearm. The exception to the rule is that you can’t sell the frame or receiver. That’s the part that encloses, among other things, the firing pin and the hammer. That part needs a serial number on it and you need an FFL to sell it.
The problem with AR-15 style rifles is that the receiver comes in two pieces. Each, by itself, isn’t sufficient to meet the federal definition of a receiver. Roh was selling pieces that a felon could assemble into a functional weapon with relative ease, but none of the pieces he was dishing out technically qualified as a firearm.
If that case had been allowed to proceed and the judge ruled in Roh’s favor, it could have set a precedent allowing anyone to do the same thing. Rather than open the barn door and let all the horses out, prosecutors decided to cut a deal and let Roh go. As the linked report indicates, the same thing happened in another case in 2016 where a convicted felon named Alejandro Jimenez was cut loose after purchasing an AR-15 receiver in an ATF sting operation.
It appears that this may continue unless the current law is modified to cover this particular design. I’m really not sure who’s at fault here for allowing Roh to go free, except possibly Congress. They’ve known about this loophole for several years and taken no action on it. Sounds like something that you could generate some bipartisan support for if anyone was willing to get the ball rolling.