Cambrian Resident

California `fruit stops' should be revamped to check for illegal guns

- Thomas Elias can be reached at To read more of his columns, visit california­ online.

Many California­ns feel perplexed in the wake of several mass shootings this state endured in January, two by senior citizens who targeted dozens of innocents and killed at least 18. In one of the attacks, only the bravery of an Alhambra dance hall manager prevented the carnage from becoming much worse.

At least one gun used in the mass murders was illegal in California, the Cobray automatic repeating pistol with an expanded ammunition magazine and an apparently homemade sound suppresser wielded by Monterey Park shooter Huu Can Tran, 72, before he killed himself when cornered by police in Torrance, more than 28 miles from his crime scene.

Guns and magazines like Tran's often go undetected until they're used in serious crimes. In part, this may be the result of a longstandi­ng, misplaced state priority: the extreme underuse of border protection stations California built decades ago to shield agricultur­e from pests and diseases.

Tran's weapon cannot now be sold legally in California, but authoritie­s report that he bought it in 1999, before expanded handgun magazines were outlawed here. No one knows when it entered the state.

The arrival and later misuse of many similar weapons in California very possibly could be prevented, though, if state lawmakers cared enough. Most such guns enter the state in cars, trucks or RVs. It's almost impossible for them to come here by air, as virtually all types of firearms are quickly detected by the Transporta­tion Security Administra­tion (TSA) wherever commercial planes take off.

They could enter by train, but that is at least deterred by Amtrak's random baggage inspection­s, even if they're not as frequent and obtrusive as screening of airline passengers. Gov. Gavin Newsom was clearly correct when he lamented that no matter how strong California gun laws become, they can be thwarted by folks who visit other states to buy weapons not available here.

For sure, no background check anywhere would have ruled out a purchase by Tran, who had a clean record before spraying a dance hall with 42 fast-fired bullets. However, there's already that network of examining stations where vehicles could be inspected and illegal guns very possibly found and neutralize­d.

So far, no one in power has thought to use the agricultur­al protection stations unique to California entry points to search for illegal weapons. Rather, they exclusivel­y examine fruits and vegetables before any are allowed into the state. Some vehicles are searched more thoroughly than others but not for weapons. Without much controvers­y, inspectors look for weevils and other bugs that can decimate forests and fields.

The stations sit on or beside inbound lanes near every major California entry point — near the Nevada border along Interstate 80 at Truckee and I-15 at Mountain Pass; along I-10 and I-40 at Blythe and Needles near the Arizona border; on I-5 at Hornbrook near the Oregon border; on U.S. Highway 101 near the Smith River; on State Route 139 at Tule Lake; and at Meyers on U.S. Highway 50.

Sure, anyone who's determined can circumvent these points, but only with significan­t inconvenie­nce. There are no stations (many call them “fruit stops”) along State Route 374, where cars from Nevada can enter California through Death Valley; nor on U.S. Highway 95, south of Las Vegas; or on State Route 167, where cars from Nevada can begin to cross over the Tioga Pass entry to Yosemite National Park, to name a few.

The 16 current stations sometimes go unstaffed, but those wide-open times are irregular and unpredicta­ble for folks wanting to smuggle in weapons banned by California. These stations could quickly gear up to scan or screen vehicles for guns. Starting this would take no more than training up a few dozen highway patrol officers to supplement the food and agricultur­e workers already at the fruit stops. Deploying some new CHiPs for this kind of duty around the clock could close the wide loophole through which unknown quantities of guns like Tran's enter the state.

The fact this doesn't happen and has never been seriously proposed as a state budget item demonstrat­es a flawed sense of priorities. Essentiall­y, it says protecting plants is more important than protecting people. The dead and wounded on the bloody floor of that Monterey Park dance hall were just one possible consequenc­e.

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