How California’s ‘off-roster’ gun exemption for peace officers is causing problems

While a California law allows officers to buy and sell so-called ‘off-roster’ guns, a seizure of dozens of firearms from a Pasadena police lieutenant’s home earlier this year is shining a light on problems with the implementation of the law, which was recently expanded to include sworn peace officers who aren’t cops.

Of the 57 firearms seized from Pasadena Police Lt. Vasken Gourdikian’s Sierra Madre home, at least 18 of them were off-roster, according to an analysis from the San Gabriel Valley Tribune.

In California, there’s a roster of handguns that residents can legally buy. If you’re a police officer, you can buy guns that aren’t on that roster — thus ‘off-roster’ guns. Cops can sell off-roster weapons to civilians as long as they aren’t trying to turn a profit. They’d need a Federal Firearms License to do that. Gourdikian didn’t have one of those.

He hasn’t been charged with anything, and the ATF isn’t providing many details about the investigation. But the list of seized weapons includes duplicates of off-roster handguns, which experts say could signal intent to sell.

Expanding who can buy and sell off-roster firearms

In September, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that expanded the types of sworn peace officers that qualify for that off-roster exemption, so long as they pass a three-day firearms course.

Assembly Bill 2165 allows peace officers who work in 19 agencies, including officers in the Parks and Recreation Department, the Department of Motor Vehicles, state university and community college systems, and welfare fraud investigators and probation officers to buy and sell off-roster weapons exclusively to and from each other. They can’t sell to civilians the way police officers can.

Brandon Combs, the executive director of gun rights advocacy group The Calguns Foundation, said when peace officers go to sell the guns through a licensed dealer, the dealers are taking them at their word that the buyer is a peace officer who works for one of those 19 approved agencies. Without a database of such employees, dealers can’t verify whether they are following the letter of the law. That has dealers worried they could lose their license for unknowingly facilitating an illegal sale.

“The state doesn’t give any mechanism for dealers to understand … are you subjected to this exemption, are you bound to this limitation,” Combs told the San Diego Union Tribune.

A memo from the ATF

On March 31, just six weeks after Gourdikian’s home was raided, Eric Harden, the ATF’s special agent in charge in Los Angeles, issued a memo to police agencies throughout California. He warned law enforcement officers that they’d be violating federal law if they bought off-roster and crime scene guns and then tried to sell them for a profit without a license.

“In some instances, ATF has discovered officers who purchased more than 100 ‘off roster’ firearms that were subsequently transferred to non-law enforcement individuals,” Harden said, adding, “when presented with compelling evidence of flagrant violations of federal firearms laws, ATF is obligated to conduct a criminal investigation.”

Last July, former Sacramento County sheriff’s deputy Ryan McGowan was sentenced to 18 months in prison and a $7,000 fine for reselling off-roster weapons at a profit. McGowan bought 41 handguns and resold 25 of them within a year for more than $6,000. His co-defendant, Robert Snellings, a federal firearms licensee, was sentenced to a year in prison.

Still, Harden said the point of his memo to officers earlier this year was to “educate, not investigate, to ensure law enforcement officials comply with federal law in order to avoid unnecessary public embarrassment” to law enforcement agencies.

For Brandon Combs, the off-roster issue is an equality issue. “Every time you create a special exemption, and you say this one over here is better than this person over here because of who they work for, that is undermining equality in our society and it is inherently wrong,” he said.