NBC News Botches Details of California Shooter's Legal Ability to Own, Build Firearms

NBC continues to mislead its audience on gun laws

A police vehicle that was involved in the California shooting in Rancho Tehama, Calif. / Getty Images
November 17, 2017

On Thursday, NBC News botched the details of whether the recent California shooter was able to legally possess or manufacture firearms.

In a story about the firearms used by Kevin Janson Neal during his murderous rampage in northern California on Tuesday, NBC News made misleading claims and failed to report important details.

Neal had been charged with five felonies and two misdemeanors stemming from a January incident, in which he was accused of stabbing a neighbor. A judge had ordered him to turn over his firearms and issued a restraining order that prohibited him from possessing any firearms, CBS News and the Associated Press report. A second report from the two news agencies claim police seized a rifle from Neal during his arrest, and he subsequently surrendered a handgun in compliance with the order.

Despite this, police said Neal committed his mass shooting with a pair of home-built AR-15 rifles and a pair of handguns that were registered to somebody else in California.

In their Thursday report on the shooter's guns, NBC News misleadingly claimed Neal was able to legally skirt California's ban on AR-15 rifles by building his own.

"Experts say Neal apparently exploited a legal loophole that enabled him to get around California's tough gun laws by ordering the parts for a weapon that is illegal in that state—and putting it together at home," the story said.

As a former ATF agent notes in NBC's piece, however, it would not be legal under California law for anyone to build an AR-15 rifle, which violates the state's strict ban on possession of such newly manufactured rifles. Those prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms under federal law are also prohibited from manufacturing any firearms. NBC does not note in their piece that both of these prohibitions would apply to Neal if he did, in fact, manufacture his own firearms. Despite what NBC News implies, the use of an unfinished lower receiver as part of the build makes no difference to the legality of the firearm's manufacturing process or the legal status of the finished firearm.

While the NBC piece repeats Tehama County assistant sheriff Phil Johnston's claim on Wednesday that Neal was not prohibited from owning firearms, one that has since been contradicted by court records, it did not repeat his claim from the same press conference that Neal's home-built guns were, in fact, illegal. This is despite the fact that another NBC News report from the day earlier included the fact that Johnson believed the guns were manufactured illegally.

"These firearms were manufactured illegally, we believe, by him at his home," Johnston said at a press conference Wednesday, as NBC News itself reported previously in a separate piece. "So, they (the guns) were obtained in an illegal manner, not through a legal process. They are not registered."

NBC's misleading Thursday report also quotes heavily from a misleading report the news outlet produced in February. That report, which remains uncorrected on the NBC News website, erroneously claimed it would be "perfectly legal" for a criminal to manufacture their own firearms. The ATF told the Washington Free Beacon at the time that it remains illegal for criminals to possess, let alone manufacture, firearms.

"It is illegal for a prohibited person to have a firearm or ammunition," ATF spokesperson Ginger Colbrun told the Free Beacon in February. "They can NOT be in possession of a firearm."