The PJ Tatler

Is Rick Warren Using His Son's Death to Weigh In on Gun Control?

Before getting into the details of this post, I should get a couple of things on the record. One, I have never been a fan of Rick Warren. People who have known me in church settings for years can attest to this. I have long been vocal about issues I see with Warren’s methods and materials. I was also a vocal critic when I wrote at Hot Air. In my opinion Rick Warren is not a latter day Billy Graham, a man whose integrity and fidelity to truth have never been in question. Graham never watered down scripture. In my opinion, Warren frequently does.

That said, I was as horrified as anyone upon hearing that Warren’s son had committed suicide. His son apparently suffered from mental illness for his entire life, which for any parent can be unspeakably difficult. The loss of a child is something no parent should have to go through. As a parent myself, I cannot even imagine the shock, grief and heartache that the Warrens must be experiencing right now. It’s heartbreaking.

When a public figure is going through a situation that is as wrenching, shocking and gutting as the loss of a child, silence toward the public may be the wisest course. Our minds may not be in a good place to make sound judgements or wise statements. Unfortunately, Warren has not chosen silence. He has chosen a different path. Newser reports:

Rick Warren’s son committed suicide using an unregistered gun, the pastor said in a tweet yesterday. “Someone on the Internet sold Matthew an unregistered gun. I pray he seeks God’s forgiveness. I forgive him,” the pastor tweeted. An Orange County sheriff’s rep says the gun’s status isn’t clear. “We can’t tell if it’s registered or not because the serial number is scratched off,” he notes, per the AP. “At one point in time, it may have been, but it’s going to be impossible to find out.”

It is against federal law to scratch off a gun’s serial number, but serial numbers are often placed in more than one location on a firearm. If someone scratched them all off on the gun in question, they are more thorough than most criminals. The relevance of this to a suicide is debatable anyway, as firearms are by no means the only way one might carry out a suicide.

Responsible resellers and gun owners wouldn’t buy a gun with scratched off serial numbers for any price. Scratching off the number or numbers is illegal and is a major red flag that the gun is stolen, was involved in criminal activity, or both, or something else that law-abiding citizens do not want to have any connection to at all. It is a felony to be in possession of a gun with scratched off serial numbers. Had he been caught with that gun and its serial numbers really were scratched off, Warren’s son could have faced prosecution. He broke the law just by possessing it, as did the seller before selling it to him. They apparently broke the law in the sale itself. Others with more detailed knowledge of gun law than mine, feel free to weigh in in the comments if I’ve gotten any of this wrong.

Newser and Warren go off the rails when discussing the gun’s registration with the state. The Warrens live in California. That state has some of the more restrictive gun laws in the nation, but there is no requirement to register legally owned handguns in California. The state has posted a list of FAQs here. Question 26 deals with registration.

26. How do I know if my firearms need to be registered?
There is no firearm registration requirement in California except for assault weapon owners and personal handgun importers. However, you may submit a Firearm Ownership Record to the DOJ for any firearm you own. Having a Firearm Ownership Record on file with the DOJ may help in the return of your firearm if it is lost or stolen. With very few and specific exceptions, all firearm transactions must be conducted through a firearms dealer.

Newser’s article on this claims that “California, meanwhile, requires background checks and gun registration.” The first is true, as seen in the answer to Question 14. All firearms sales in California including private party sales have to go through a licensed dealer, which triggers the NICS background check system. Warren’s son evidently bought his gun without going through a licensed dealer, which was a crime both for him and whoever sold him the gun. The law did not stop him or the seller. Would more laws have changed this situation?

Registering the gun was not required by California, as seen in Question 26 above, at least unless either Warren or the party from whom he bought his gun were moving it across state lines. You’re considered an “importer” to California if you move into the state and happen to bring your legally owned guns with you, even if you have no intention to ever sell them. Owning them is the same as importing them if you move into California from another state. Importers must register their guns, residents are not required to except in specific circumstances that do not appear to be relevant here. The answer on Question 26 makes that clear. The Newser story does not get into the level of detail, though, to allow readers to determine whether the gun ever moved across state lines. That is a highly relevant fact.

Newser’s first story on this also gets the state’s registration law wrong, when it says:

It’s illegal in California to buy a gun without a background check and purchasers are supposed to register their firearms.

Again, the first part is true. The second is not. Newser is repeating the same error in two different stories. Newser is being lazy, as it just takes a few seconds to find California’s firearm FAQ online. I found it quickly from 1000 miles outside the state, via secret blogger techniques — i.e., Google.

Warren should probably take time to grieve away from Twitter. No one, even his sharpest critics, would begrudge him taking time away from public attention to take care of his family.

The gun and its registration are not the most important factors here.