Kathleen Miles is the executive editor of Noema Magazine. She can be reached on Twitter at @mileskathleen.
John Zawahri, the man who shot five people to death near Santa Monica College last month before being killed by police, failed a gun-purchase background check due to a history of mental illness. How, then, did he get the assault-style rifle he used in the slaughter?
He built it, out of parts he legally bought online. Now, a congressman representing Southern California is trying to make that illegal.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Santa Monica) said he will introduce a federal bill to ban online gun kits that allow people to build homemade assault weapons. He announced his proposal at a gun violence forum on the Santa Monica College campus Monday.
“I am determined to do all I can to support Santa Monica, support the victims, and make sure that the federal government is doing its part to make sure that this tragedy is not repeated,” Waxman said in a statement to The Huffington Post. “I will work with leaders from both parties to pass this bill into law.”
Numerous YouTube videos and gun websites provide step-by-step tutorials on how to build a complete rifle from parts, Waxman explained in a background memo he released Monday.
Griffin Dix, former president of the California chapters of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said Waxman’s bill is needed. “Americans agree that dangerous people should not be able to obtain especially dangerous weapons,” Dix said. “Yet now they are able to make them with parts purchased online.”
The problem is exacerbated by online sales disregarding varying state laws. For example, out-of-state vendors sell so-called magazine repair kits that enable a purchaser to assemble a complete assault weapon that is illegal in California, Waxman’s memo noted.
“If these weapons are banned from being sold in California, they should also be banned from being manufactured by anyone in California,” said Travis LeBlanc, attorney and former special assistant to California Attorney General Kamala Harris. “To do otherwise leaves a gaping hole in the law.”
The bill also expands the mission of the National Institute of Mental Health to address research on serious mental illness, including schizophrenia, bipolar affective disorder and severe depression. It reauthorizes the Mental and Behavioral Health Education and Training Program to train psychologists, and increases funding for scholarships and loan repayments for mental health professionals.
In addition to mental health measure, Waxman’s bill seeks to increase research on gun violence. It reaffirms the authority of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct research (including data collection) on the causes and prevention of gun violence and directs the Department of Health and Human Services to improve the National Violent Death Reporting System. Click here to see a full description of the legislation.
Some questioned the feasibility of Waxman’s proposal.
“At the federal level, this has no real chance of passage,” Gene Hoffman, chairman of the pro-gun Calguns Foundation, said to HuffPost. “Further, the definition of what is a so-called assault weapon is extremely fragile and as such it’s very hard to define what Congressman Waxman wants to call kits.”
The Senate defeated a proposal in April to extend background checks to all firearms bought at gun shows and online. An estimated 40 percent of gun sales occur without a background check, leaving more than 6 million gun sales unscreened from gun transfers, private sellers, and online or gun show purchases.
EBay banned gun listings in 1999. Craigslist followed suit in 2007. But other websites sprang up to take their place. Armslist debuted almost four years ago and boasted about 50,000 listings.
An undercover New York City investigation found that 54 percent of the sellers on the site were openly willing to sell firearms to people who admitted they couldn’t pass a background check. Guns bought on Armslist have been linked to a number of murders and other crimes.
The Brady Campaign To Prevent Gun Violence estimated that 5,000 to 10,000 deaths a year are caused by firearms obtained illegally.
In the wake of a Florida jury’s acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, President Barack Obama on Sunday renewed his call for stronger gun control.
“We should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives,” Obama said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that magazine repair kits are banned in California. However, the kits and parts are not. Rather, in some cases, complete but disassembled assault weapons are sold as “repair kits” to allow purchasers to build weapons that are illegal in California.