A makeshift memorial near the Chabad of Poway synagogue / Photo by Lyle Moran

This post originally appeared in the Feb. 7 Sacramento Report. Get the Sacramento Report delivered to your inbox.

The 19-year-old man accused of tearing through a Poway synagogue last year, killing a woman and injuring others, should not have been in possession of a semi-automatic rifle. California limits the sale of an AR-15 to adults who are 21 and older — but makes an exception for registered hunters.

Court records show that John Earnest, the man accused of carrying out the rampage, had completed a hunting education course online by the time he purchased a rifle in April 2019, but authorities have said his hunting license wasn’t yet in effect. The state’s Fish and Game Code defines a “valid” hunting license as beginning July 1 of the year it’s been issued.

To ensure there’s no confusion over this point in the future, state Sen. Anthony Portantino, a Democrat from the Los Angeles area, introduced a bill last week requiring the California Department of Justice to verify a hunting license during the 10-day waiting period. If state officials cannot, they’re obligated to immediately notify the dealer and cancel the sale.

The dealer, in the meantime, is supposed to “visually inspect” the person’s hunting license and write down the dates it goes into effect.

“Sadly, no one can undo the tragedy that occurred in Poway,” Portantino said in a press release. “I pray for the families and hope the lessons learned can be used proactively for a better and safer place for our Californians to worship and for families to raise their children in safety.”

Another law that took effect on Jan. 1 — SB 61, which was also written by Portantino — prohibits the sale of semi-automatic center fire rifles, including AR-15s, to anyone under 21 who’s not in the military or law enforcement. That means SB 914 applies to other types of long rifles, basically those with bolt action.

It has the support of San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan, said a spokesman for her office.

In an interview with the Associated Press this week, Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California, questioned whether the state DOJ would be able to quickly and accurately verify hunting licenses because of all the other things the agency does. Last summer, the state began requiring ammo buyers to undergo a background check to screen out felons, domestic abusers and others.

Michael Schwartz, executive director of the San Diego County Gun Owners group, told VOSD he considered the original law limiting firearm ownership to 21-year-olds unconstitutional. (Several gun groups are suing to stop it.) He also defended the dealer in the Earnest case, arguing that the state hadn’t been clear on when a hunting license was actually in effect.

A search of local and state court records suggests the dealer has not been charged with a crime.

Jesse Marx is Voice of San Diego's associate editor.

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