Ghost Gunner company accused of rebranding ploy to dodge California ban

FILE - In this Aug. 29, 2017, file photo, an ATF agent poses with homemade rifles, or "ghost guns," at an ATF field office in Glendale, Calif. California's attorney general is suing the Trump administration in an effort to crack down on so-called "ghost guns" that can be built from parts with little ability to track or regulate the owner. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)
A law enforcement agent poses with homemade ghost guns in 2017 in Glendale. Authorities in California have been cracking down on such weapons, including in a new lawsuit filed by San Diego County against the company Defense Distributed. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

When San Diego County Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer first saw the Coast Runner milling machine being marketed as some state-of-the-art product for creative people in California, she was livid.

Despite its chill name and the retro colors splashed on its side, Lawson-Remer said the Coast Runner was clearly just a rebranded Ghost Gunner — a desktop machine the state outlawed in 2022 for its ability to turn simple slabs of metal into homemade components for untraceable ghost guns, including AR-15s, AK-47s and semiautomatic pistols.

"The idea that you could take the same exact product that is designed to kill people, put a different packaging on it, and suddenly it's not lethal and not illegal? That is just offensive," Lawson-Remer said.

On Thursday, San Diego County sued the manufacturer of both devices, Texas-based Defense Distributed, asking a state court to declare the Coast Runner illegal under California law and to order the company to stop selling and marketing it in the state.

"The 'Coast Runner' is in fact the Ghost Gunner with a new coat of paint," the lawsuit argues. "It has the same internal designs, the same features, and is being marketed for the same purpose: the illegal production of untraceable ghost guns."

Defense Distributed — which was co-founded by the controversial and outspoken gun rights activist Cody Wilson, an early player in the world of 3-D-printed firearms — dismissed the lawsuit as unfounded in a statement to The Times.

"Defense Distributed observes California law to the very letter," the company said. "Even when it’s obviously illegal and doomed to fail Constitutional review."

The county's lawsuit, which it filed with the support of the gun control advocacy organization Giffords Law Center, is the latest salvo in a pitched battle between California authorities, who have identified ghost guns as a major threat to public safety, and Defense Distributed, which has said its milling technology is "as easy as 3-D printing" and brings "milling to the masses."

Defense Distributed previously argued in its own lawsuit that California's law blocking gun-making milling machines is unconstitutional, but a judge rejected that argument and the company withdrew its claim.

Computer numerical control, or CNC, milling machines — which usually cost a few thousand dollars — are devices that guide drills to produce intricate and precise mechanical parts from slabs of metal. Such machines have turned otherwise complex manufacturing into a household hobby. While the tools can be used to make parts for cars or bicycles and a range of other items, they have also made it easier to create high-quality frames and receivers for ghost guns. Such firearms lack serial numbers, which are attached to commercially produced weapons and can help authorities investigate crimes.

It is unclear how many homemade or ghost guns exist in the state, or the country, but experts believe the number is huge. A 2023 report by the state's Office of Gun Violence Prevention found the number of ghost guns recovered by law enforcement in connection to a crime in California jumped from 26 in 2015 to more than 12,000 in 2022.

State legislatures and courts across the country have been wrestling with how and whether such firearms can be regulated. A Biden administration rule changing the federal definition of a firearm to include unfinished parts such as frames and receivers — like those made by milling machines — is currently under review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 2022, Defense Distributed sued California over a law that made it illegal for anyone without a federal license to manufacture guns to "sell, offer to sell, or transfer a CNC milling machine that has the sole or primary function of manufacturing firearms" to anyone in the state. The law also requires people in California to have a federal license to purchase or possess such a machine or to use one to make gun parts.

The company acknowledged in previous court filings that its Ghost Gunner machine was used to produce unserialized parts for ghost guns. But it argued it also was the "modern-day manifestation" of age-old firearm milling techniques that had "never before been regulated in American history," and that enforcement of California's law should be blocked as unconstitutional under the "history and tradition" test that the Supreme Court set for assessing modern gun laws in a landmark 2022 decision.

Near the end of 2022, after a federal judge broadly rejected that argument on the grounds that the 2nd Amendment did not extend to the manufacturing of firearms without a license, the company agreed to drop its lawsuit.

San Diego County argues in its claim that the company set about building the Coast Runner as an end run around the same state law it failed to overturn in court — ostensibly on the grounds that the machine is not primarily for the production of guns.

Online advertising for the Ghost Gunner is heavily focused on firearms — on the machine's ability to make them cheaply, quickly and at home with parts that have no identifiable markings. In one video, men make guns as women dance to electronic dance music.

Ads for the Coast Runner are far more circumspect. A video talks about its design features and its ability to make "perfect metal parts," but largely avoids specifics.

The county argues the Coast Runner is still primarily geared toward the production of firearm parts, and that Defense Distributed has been on "an aggressive marketing campaign for the device" — including with its own booth at the Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show in Las Vegas, an industry event where the Coast Runner was flagged as one of the "hottest new products" on the gun market.

The county accuses Defense Distributed of bad-faith business practices aimed at obscuring the fact that the Ghost Gunner and the Coast Runner are nearly identical, which it said the company has acknowledged elsewhere. It pointed to language originally on the official Ghost Gunner website and later on multiple other sales websites — including one operated by Defense Distributed — informing people purchasing the Ghost Gunner in California that they would be receiving the Coast Runner instead.

Billy Clark, a senior litigation attorney with Giffords, called Defense Distributed "major bad actors in the gun industry," and said the company's products are arming "people who would otherwise be prohibited from having guns."

He said the company "has adopted a too-cute-by-half marketing and sales approach that invokes a retro 'cool' vibe, when what they are doing is selling a product that is specifically designed to make guns in the home."

Lawson-Remer, the county supervisor, said "companies that profit off of death and destruction are going to continue making money unless we stand up and fight back."

That's what the lawsuit is about, she said.

"These kinds of tactics, these aggressive marketing tactics around ghost gun manufacturing, [are] what we are seeing more and more of — and what we really need to be on guard against," she said.

Times criminal justice editor Keegan Hamilton contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.