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.
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.
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.
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.”