Homemade guns a growing problem in Northern California

SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU and wires) -- Homemade guns, similar to the ones assembled by a 21-year-old Lafayette man who killed a 19-year-old woman at her home in Walnut Creek last month, are becoming more common, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said Tuesday.

"We're starting to see more and more of them," said ATF spokeswoman Helen Dunkel. "It's been a trend over the last couple years in our division."

The San Francisco field division covers an area extending from Bakersfield to the Oregon border, she said.

It's perfectly legal for someone who is not otherwise prohibited from owning firearms -- convicted felons, for example -- to assemble their own gun, Dunkel said.

Certain types of guns cannot be lawfully assembled at home, including automatic machine guns, silencers, sawed-off shotguns and short-barreled shotguns, according to Dunkel.

"Those types of weapons are considered more dangerous and are required to be registered to lawfully possess one," she said, adding that users must also pay a federal tax. "As long as it's not in that category, you, who has no record, can manufacture a firearm."

That's precisely what police said Scott Bertics did before taking two homemade guns to the home of Walnut Creek resident Clare Orton, killing her and then killing himself. The two had previously been in a dating relationship, police said.

Homemade firearms have turned up in several high-profile cases in California in recent years, including the 2013 shooting spree in Santa Monica that ultimately killed six people, including the shooter, John Zawahri, Dunkel said.

She also pointed to the 2014 Bank of the West robbery, kidnapping and shootout in Stockton as another incident where authorities recovered an improvised gun.

"This might be an avenue for people who are prohibited from buying firearms to circumvent the background check," Dunkel said. "But, as long as you're complying with state law, it's not unlawful to make a homemade gun."

State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) introduced a bill last year that would have required people who make their own guns to register the firearms and attach a serial number to the devices.

The bill passed the House and the Senate but was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown. In a veto message dated Sept. 30, 2014, Brown said he appreciated the author's concerns about gun violence, but "can't see how adding a serial number to a homemade gun would significantly advance public safety."

Asked if the governor still held this view - given the recent murder suicide in Walnut Creek - spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said, "The veto message speaks for itself."

A spokeswoman for de Leon said the senator wasn't planning on reintroducing the bill.

It's still unclear however, why Bertics crafted his own handguns when he could have simply purchased one. The minimum age to purchase a handgun in California is 21, according to the California Bureau of Firearms.

"It certainly would have been a lot easier," Dunkel said.

Detectives found nothing in their investigation to suggest anyone was involved in or had knowledge of Bertics' plan, police said.

Officers responded at 6:50 a.m. on July 21 to a home in the city's north Homestead neighborhood on a report of shots fired, police said.

Officers arrived to find the pair dead from apparent gunshot wounds in the home where Orton lived with her family, according to police. Police have ruled the case a murder-suicide.

Orton was a Las Lomas High School graduate and captain on the school's cross country team, according to the school's newspaper, Las Lomas Page.

She was living at home during summer break after finishing her freshman year of college at San Diego State University, where she was an honors student studying environmental engineering, according to university spokesman Greg Block.

Bertics, an Acalanes High School graduate and a member of the school's cross country team, had enrolled at Stanford University in the fall of 2012 but took a voluntary leave of absence in the fall of 2014, according to university spokesman Brad Hayward.

Hayward said Bertics had not yet declared a major, but he is listed on a 2013 demonstration called "Controlling Robot Dynamics with Spiking Neurons." He's also acknowledged in a paper titled, "Developing Articulated Robots in Task-Space with Spiking Silicon Neurons."