A California state court judge has ruled that a lawsuit filed by a Saugus High School shooting survivor against an online seller of homemade ghost guns — the kind used in the 2019 shooting — can move forward to a jury trial.
The news comes after the defendant, Terrance Osman, the owner of 1911builders.com, filed a motion to dismiss the case on the grounds that they owed no “duty of care” relating to the sale of the ghost gun kit used by 16-year-old Nathaniel Berhow to kill 14-year-old Dominic Blackwell and 15-year-old Gracie Muehlberger before fatally turning the gun on himself.
However, Judge Stephen Pfahler ultimately sided with the plaintiff in the case, Mia Tretta, who was 15 years old when she was shot by Berhow on Nov. 14, 2019, on the Saugus High campus. In a ruling distributed on June 29, Pfahler wrote that he dismissed the defense’s arguments on the grounds that “it is entirely reasonable and foreseeable” that the customers of ghost gun kits buy them in order to evade gun safety laws.
“Ghost guns are guns, and if anyone needs proof of that, they can look at the scars that a ghost gun left on my stomach and my community,” Tretta said in a prepared statement. “This ruling is an important step towards accountability for the shooting that changed my life and the lives of countless others forever.”
Osman’s legal team argued that since their client’s ghost guns are sold in an “80% kit” – meaning that the kits are sent out from the company disassembled and require multiple hours on the part of the buyer to machine, drill and assemble the gun before it can be fired – that the 1911 Builders’ product “does not meet the definition of a firearm under regulations established by the United States Department of Justice, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, in 2017.”
Additionally, the defense argued that because the “80% kit” is not considered by ATF to be a firearm, the manufacturer does not have a duty to conduct a background check on a purchaser.
However, Pfahler dismissed this argument from the defense by recounting that, during Osman’s deposition, the defendant admitted the properly completed kits allow for the “creation of a fully functioning firearm capable of expelling a bullet.”
The California Penal Code considers a firearm to be any “weapon (including a starter gun) which will or is designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive,” Phaler wrote, and therefore the 1911 Builders kit should be considered an operable firearm that requires a background check to purchase.
“As addressed above, the court rejects the first part of the argument in that the kit constitutes a firearm, at a minimum, under the definition provided by the State of California,” reads Pfahler’s opinion. “Furthermore, the court finds a basis of duty imposed on the defendant based on the sale of the kits readily convertible into an operable firearm.”
The ruling in the case is the latest update in a legal battle that has been closely followed around the state and country since it was first introduced in December 2020, marking the first time a ghost gun kit vendor has been taken to trial.
In addition to working on her case, which Pfahler ordered will proceed to trial in January, Tretta has become a national voice on gun violence, even speaking at the White House in April on the day that President Joe Biden announced new policies regulating ghost guns.
The ATF estimates that approximately 45,000 ghost guns have been recovered at crime scenes since 2016, with more than 19,000 being recovered in 2021 alone. According to the lawsuit filed by Tretta, Berhow’s father had purchased the firearm — undergoing no background check in the process — after law enforcement had already confiscated 42 firearms from his home and he had been prohibited from purchasing a firearm.
“The lawsuit alleges that 1911 Builders was negligent and created a public nuisance,” reads a statement from Everytown Law, the firm representing Tretta. “It asks the court to order the website to stop selling ghost gun frames, receivers or kits unless and until they are in compliance with state and federal law, and it also seeks damages.”