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Politics Report: Ghost Guns Exploding

Illustration by Megan Wood

San Diego was at the center of firearms discussions this week, after local federal Judge Roger Benitez’s ruling declaring California’s ban on AR-15 and similar rifles unconstitutional. The state quickly announced it would appeal, and state leaders launched a rhetorical attack on the judge. (If you’re into reading court rulings, this is one to sit down with [1]. The first paragraph is something. The argument is essentially: The AR-15 is a very useful and great weapon, therefore banning it is unconstitutional.)

But you can only ban firearms if you know they exist. And this week in politics could feature a lot of discussion about the guns we, by definition, do not know about: ghost guns. Following a recent shooting in the Gaslamp (which could have been much worse) Councilwoman Marni Von Wilpert asked the city attorney for a report on ghost guns.

She got it Friday [2]. And now she wants to act.

What they are: We checked in with our friend Alain Stephens from The Trace [3] to help us explain. When you go and buy a conventional firearm, it has a life story, a biography written by the government. If it’s found somewhere, law enforcement can run the serial number and trace that storyline back to its manufacturer.

But a lot of websites and stores will sell so called 80 percent-receivers or other kits that are not considered firearms – just plastic and metal chunks until you assemble them, sometimes rather easily, with many tutorials available, into fully functional firearms. You do not need a background check to get a kit. In the state of California, you are supposed to register it as a firearm and get a serial number at that point. But few do. They do not have serial numbers.

“So if you’re a guy who knows he can’t buy a gun, boom, you can get one without any interaction with anyone. And there’s no paperwork – it’s an untraceable firearm,” Stephens explained.

That’s what happened downtown: On April 22, the city narrowly avoided a mass shooting [4]. A man shot and killed a valet he apparently didn’t know and shot at several others before bystanders pursued and helped detain him, and police eventually caught him with a ghost gun. He was legally prohibited from owning a firearm.

So far this year, San Diego police have seized 178 ghost guns out of the 838 total guns they obtained. Last year, police took possession of 211 ghost guns. So this year is far outpacing previous years.

Guns seized by the San Diego Police Department
Source: San Diego Police Department

What local governments can do: It’s not clear. The Biden administration is also working on how to regulate the guns. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has yet to say how it’s going to put serial numbers on them.

Von Wilpert wants to at least find out if local shops are selling parts. She wants a local ordinance

“They’re getting around all the lawful regulations we have to try to prevent someone who’s dangerous from having a firearm,” she told the Politics Report. “We need the state and federal government to act but as the eighth largest city, we can have something to do with that.”

Stephens pointed out that ghost guns are also more popular in places like California with many firearms regulations. They’re not as popular in places where there are more thriving gray markets for trading and buying weapons because of more lax regulations on exchange.

So ban or not on AR-15s, there will still be a way.

“I can grab a fully manufactured barrel, optics, pistol grip and snap it together and I can have an AR very easily,” Stephens said.

He’s not exaggerating: A few years ago, our Jesse Marx went to the Del Mar gun show [5] and saw multiple vendors selling build-your-own AR-15 kits for less than $500, one of which had “Trump” cut into the hand guard.

SANDAG, Auditor Continue to Butt Heads

A meeting of the SANDAG Transportation Committee / Photo by Megan Wood

SANDAG is still having a tough time adapting to life with an auditor.

The agency’s board on Friday voted down changes to its auditing system proposed by the auditing committee. And that comes after last fall’s acrimony [6] between agency executives and the auditor, over a report the latter wrote alleging illegal personnel moves – disputed by outside legal counsel brought in by SANDAG’s leaders – and her subsequent allegation that the response to the audit constituted improper interference.

This is all over an auditor and auditing committee created by AB 805, the bill that reformed the agency’s governance structure following the forecasting and budgeting scandal of 2016 and 2017.

The changes voted down Friday were not especially significant taken alone. The auditing committee recommended increasing the term length for the public members of the committee from two years to four years, in hopes of increasing its independence. It also recommended elevating the auditor position, held by Mary Khoshmashrab, to the same level as the agency’s chief of finance.

The temporary subcommittee concluded that maintaining the existing structure allowed for more flexibility to choose the audit committee’s leadership, and that the current system had worked well so far. It prepared a side-by-side analysis [7] to argue the auditor shouldn’t be considered equivalent to the CFO.

The intrigue instead stems from how they were voted down, and what one audit committee member had to say about the decision.

After the audit committee recommended the changes, the board created a temporary committee composed of SANDAG board chair Catherine Blakespear and former chair Steve Vaus, who reviewed the proposal and instead recommended making no changes at all. That’s what the board ended up doing.

“They’re asking you to discard collectively over 100 years of our professional experience relating to auditing without giving you a rationale or any backup, simply the words that the status quo is effective,” said Stewart Halpern, a public audit committee member recently confirmed for a second term, who also sat on the oversight committee for the agency’s sales tax-funded spending program in 2016. “Chair Blakespear mentioned analysis. There was no analysis. Where is the research on the norms or best practices of peer entities so you can make an informed decision? Since the 2016 revenue forecast error, this board, to its great credit, has been assertive in requiring SANDAG staff to provide data, backup and support for its recommendations for board decisions. Shouldn’t the ad hoc subcommittee, regardless of who’s on it, be held to the same standard?”

Halpern argued the audit committee was simply aligning itself with common practices among similar entities.

“A vote to follow the subcommittee’s … recommendation … is a vote to condone the lapses in good governance and proper diligence that ultimately led to AB 805,” he said.

Political Notes

Cut still would leave an increase: San Diego City Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe wrote an op-ed [8] proposing a $10 million cut to the Police Department’s budget. She wants to target overtime, and thus avoid laying off police officers. We spent a while analyzing why the Police Department’s budget is increasing. In short, it’s mostly because of rising pension costs. Even cutting $10 million would still leave the budget for police higher than last year. She’d use the money for nonprofits that address homelessness and youth services, graffiti removal, code enforcement arts and culture and to help plan to take over the electric power service.

SD GOP demands U-T hand over photos for access to forum: The Republican Party of San Diego County is hosting a forum with several candidates for governor not including the two prominent San Diegans: Kevin Faulconer and John Cox. The U-T wanted [9] to go. It got weird: “When the Union-Tribune responded that it planned to send a reporter and photographer, communications director Will Seykora stated that the Republican Party requires the rights to use the newspaper’s text and photos from the event as a condition of entry.”

So the U-T isn’t going. How will we ever know what Caitlyn Jenner says???

Roe in a row: The Politics Report ran into Jason Roe, the former San Diego political consultant, this week. He was visiting town after having moved to Michigan, where he’s running the Michigan Republican Party. There’s just one problem: While he remains very conservative and an insulting, pugnacious political mercenary, he still also doesn’t like [10] former President Donald Trump. Fans of Trump have protested outside his office but he’s sticking to it [11].

The November 2020 ethics violations: Punishments for politically campaigns typically don’t come until after the election is over, and therefore after anyone cares. We missed the handful of fines San Diego’s Ethics Commission has issued this year, based on improprieties in the fall. One of those, issued in January [12], hit a committee that was supporting former Councilwoman Barbara Bry’s mayoral run with a $7,000 fine for failing to file paperwork within required time limits – we wrote about the committee’s expenditure at the time [13]. Joe Levanthal, who ran against Von Wilpert, was fined $250 in April for sending fundraising solicitations to city staff [14]. And the committee in favor of the measure to take out bonds to pay for low-income housing was fined $750 for failure to promptly disclose large donations [15].

Now the pandemic can be over: Last month, Fernando Tatis Jr. missed 10 days of play with the Padres after he tested positive for COVID-19. Thursday, he announced he got the vaccine.