No one disputes that Ryan McGowan had a thing for guns.
The onetime Sacramento County sheriff’s deputy bought 41 handguns from 2008 through 2011, including high-powered weapons that were unavailable to the general public.
“He loved to collect firearms,” McGowan’s lawyer, Chris Cosca, explained in documents filed last week in federal court in Sacramento. “He loved to look at, hold and shoot firearms.”
Federal prosecutors say the gun purchases reflected much more than McGowan’s affinity for firearms. They allege the former deputy was part of a secret – and illegal – gun-dealing operation that involved three other officers from three different area law enforcement agencies.
McGowan 34, is charged along with a Sacramento firearms dealer with conspiracy to circumvent federal firearms laws to run a weapons bazaar.
The case, which began four years ago with undercover operatives and wiretaps, went to trial Monday before U.S. District Judge Troy L. Nunley in the latest step of what has been a twisting legal path. It’s the third trial stemming from the investigation since the case spilled into the open in June 2012.
At the time, the region’s top law enforcement leaders gathered to announce a wide-ranging probe that uncovered alleged wrongdoing by officers in the Sheriff’s Department and the Sacramento and Roseville police departments.
Officials described operations that resulted in undercover agents purchasing weapons and producing evidence that officers were making tens of thousands of dollars using their law enforcement status to buy weapons that they quickly turned around and sold for a profit to members of the public who could not legally possess them.
One sale included a buyer who converted two firearms to assault weapons and ended up in a six-hour siege with a SWAT team, officials said.
“It’s disheartening,” Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones said at the time.
Until now, however, the case has yet to produce the outcomes that might be expected from such hoopla.
Two officers involved in the case, one from Sacramento police and the other from Roseville, were allowed to resign their posts and never faced charges.
One Sacramento County sheriff’s deputy, Thomas Lu, pleaded guilty in his first court appearance and agreed to testify against McGowan, his former colleague and friend, in exchange for leniency.
The case against McGowan is a reprise of a 15-day trial held last year. That trial ended with the acquittal of one man accused of buying a weapon from the officers and a mistrial for McGowan and Robert Snellings Jr., 64, the firearms dealer alleged to have conspired with him. The jury could not reach a verdict against either of those defendants, leaving the government to try again in the case now in court.
To date, the only successful prosecution to come out of the investigation was a Sacramento Superior Court trial in which a jury found McGowan guilty of possessing an illegal shotgun and of providing a large-capacity ammunition clip to a federal undercover agent.
McGowan faced up to three years and eight months in prison; he got a 90-day jail sentence. Online court records show he served 30 days on the sheriff’s work crew.
McGowan, who was fired from the Sheriff’s Department, now faces a jury trial expected to last two to three weeks and hinge in part on testimony from Lu, his former colleague.
His lawyers have maintained that he simply was a gun enthusiast who picked up a few extra dollars – and sometimes lost money – buying and selling weapons through Snellings, a federally licensed firearms dealer.
Snellings’ attorney, Patrick Hanly, has argued that his client believed he was conducting legal business and, if anything, fell victim to “the complexity of the gun laws in both California and nationally under federal law.”
Prosecutors allege that the men abused McGowan’s position in law enforcement to enrich themselves – an assertion that failed to convince a jury in the first trial. Jurors in that case eventually sent a note to Judge Nunley saying “there are firm beliefs on both sides.”
Prosecutors say that police officers may legally purchase “off roster” weapons from a federally licensed firearms dealer to augment their own collections or use in addition to their service weapons.
The law also allows them to sell such weapons to individuals who are not officers, “but they may not do so as a business,” the government’s trial brief notes.
Because such “off-roster” weapons are scarce, they are valuable to many buyers.
“As a sheriff’s deputy, McGowan purchased off-roster handguns at standard sales prices,” the prosecution wrote in its trial brief. “McGowan then resold the guns at an inflated price on the private party market in California because the off-roster firearms could not be purchased directly by the general public.”
Of the 41 handguns McGowan bought between 2008 and 2011, he later sold 25, including five of them within a month after he bought them, prosecutors say.
Most of the weapons – 33 – were purchased through Snellings’ gun business, court documents state.
McGowan’s attorney argues that the former deputy was never in business buying and selling guns, that his job as a deputy paid him $57,000 to $71,000 a year and that, at most, he made “a few thousand dollars over a four-year period” selling weapons.
“This conduct does not constitute a crime,” Cosca wrote.
Denny Walsh: (916) 321-1189