DOJ Seal

Department of Justice

U.S. Attorney's Office
Eastern District of California

For Immediate Release

Thursday, June 11, 2015
Benjamin B. Wagner
, United States Attorney
Contact: Lauren Horwood

Jury Returns Guilty Verdicts for Former Sacramento County Sheriff’s Deputy and Federal Firearms Licensee in Firearm Straw-Buyer Scheme

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — After a nine-day trial, a federal jury returned guilty verdicts for two defendants in a firearm straw-buyer scheme involving firearms that are not on California’s roster of approved handguns, United States Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner announced.

Former Sacramento County Sheriff’s Deputy Ryan McGowan, 33, of Elk Grove, was found guilty of one count of engaging in the business of dealing in firearms without a license and one count of conspiracy to make a false statement in federal firearms records. Federal Firearms Licensee Robert Snellings, 63, of Rancho Murieta, was found guilty of five counts of conspiracy to make false statements in federal firearms records.

Under state law, California has an approved roster of firearms that may be sold to the public. A Federal Firearms Licensee is required to make sure any handgun sold is on the approved roster. There is an exemption, however, for peace officers to purchase certain firearms known as “off-roster” firearms. Peace officers who own off-roster firearms may sell them in a private sale, as long as it is brokered by a Federal Firearms Licensee. They may not, however, use these private sales to conduct a business whose principal objective is livelihood and profit through the repetitive purchase and resale of firearms.

Because off-roster firearms cannot be purchased directly by the general public, they command high prices. According to evidence produced at trial, McGowan used his position as a sheriff’s deputy to purchase off-roster guns at the retail price, and then he resold them at an inflated price on the private market in California. From 2008 to 2011, McGowan purchased 41 handguns, many of them high-caliber guns, and sold 25 of them within a year after purchase. Thirty-three of the guns were purchased through Snellings Firearms, which was owned by co-defendant Snellings. Some of those weapons were then transferred back to Snellings personally, thereby allowing Snellings to own the weapons himself or sell them to the public.

“When law enforcement officers misuse their badges to funnel dangerous weapons to the highest bidder, they compromise the safety of the public. By putting personal profit ahead of public safety, they undermine the very essence of their duty,” said U.S. Attorney Wagner. “I want to specifically thank the Sacramento Sheriff’s Office, the Sacramento Police Department, the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office, and other regional law enforcement agencies for their partnership in the course of this investigation.”

Both defendants were found guilty of conspiracies to make false statements in federal firearms records. In order to circumvent the restrictions on purchasing off-roster firearms, they falsely stated on the ATF Form 4473 that a police officer was the actual purchaser when buying the off-roster handgun when the actual purchaser was intended to be a non-officer who was not permitted to buy the off-roster handgun. Therefore, McGowan and other police officers were acting as a straw purchasers who then transferred the handguns to the real purchasers within a short period of time.

“The individuals who unlawfully sell firearms and falsify official firearm transaction records are in violation of the federal firearms laws and should be held accountable,” stated Acting Special Agent in Charge Eric D. Harden. “One of ATF’s top priorities is to aggressively investigate those suspects who are illegally trafficking in firearms that may ultimately end up as crime guns.”

After pleading guilty on August 28, 2012, to one count engaging in the business of dealing in firearms without a license, co-defendant Thomas Lu, 42, of Elk Grove, is scheduled for sentencing on July 9, 2015. According to court documents, Lu was a Sacramento County Sheriff’s deputy who obtained 27 off roster firearms and sold 23 of them, 18 of which were sold within one year.

This case is the product of an investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives with the active involvement of the Sacramento Sheriff’s Office and the Sacramento Police Department. The Roseville Police Department and other law enforcement agencies assisted. Assistant United States Attorneys William S. Wong and Michael D. Anderson are prosecuting the case.

The maximum statutory penalty for each of the conspiracy charges is five years in prison, a $250,000 fine, and a term of supervised release. The maximum penalty for the charge of engaging in the business of dealing firearms without a license is 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine, and a term of supervised release. The actual sentences will be determined at the discretion of the court after consideration of any applicable statutory factors and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which take into account a number of variables.

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Field Division: San Francisco Field Division