Steve Helsley of El Dorado Hills is a retired California Dept. of Justice executive and a consultant to the NRA.

Viewpoints: Gun roundup program has too many flaws

Published: Friday, May. 3, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 15A
Last Modified: Sunday, May. 5, 2013 - 2:23 pm

There is broad agreement across America that "bad guys shouldn't have guns." How the two should be separated is another matter – and recent legislation has triggered a debate between some of the "good guys."

In dueling opinion pieces, Attorney General Kamala Harris argues that her office should have the lead role, while former Sacramento Sheriff John McGinness supports a local law enforcement-based approach. If cost efficiency or public safety is important, the winner should have been obvious.

The program in question is the Armed Prohibited Persons System, or APPS. Created in 2001, initially it enjoyed overwhelming bipartisan support and the backing of the National Rifle Association. The program's objective was to take guns away from people convicted of felonies or certain misdemeanors and from folks with mental health problems. California's attorney general was tasked with managing the program, and most assumed that legions of outlaw motorcycle gang members, drug dealers, criminal street gang members and other "bad guys" would soon hear cell doors slam behind them. The reality proved far different.

The program is law enforcement at its most basic level. It calls for no wiretaps, undercover negotiations, long-term surveillances or anything that even resembles a complex investigation. The attorney general's Bureau of Firearms simply compares the names of registered owners of firearms against records in its other databases. If someone is identified as possibly being in illegal possession of a firearm, law enforcement might schedule a "visit."

The question was: Who should make the visits – the Bureau of Firearms or a local law enforcement agency? Some of the suspects identified by the program are genuine threats to public safety. Others were involved in nonviolent offenses. Many have no idea they are prohibited from owning firearms – because no one in the legal system so informed them.

As the program evolved, the NRA withdrew its support. That decision was based on two factors: the program's lack of arrests and prosecutions, and that funding would come from a surplus created by the Bureau of Firearms' excessive background investigation charge for firearm purchasers.

During a joint legislative hearing on gun violence earlier this year, the Bureau of Firearms disclosed a backlog of 20,000 (and growing) violators who illegally possessed 40,000 firearms. In response, SB 140 by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, will allow the use of $24 million of surplus in excessive background investigation funds to attack the backlog by doing more of the same.

The Bureau of Firearms suggests that the Armed Prohibited Persons System program is "saving lives." If so, neither the attorney general nor the Legislature feels a sense of urgency, as implementation of SB 140 is scheduled to take three years and the legislation doesn't require a progress report until March 1, 2019. A more objective measurement of success might be the number of arrests, prosecutions and convictions since the current program began in 2007. On that subject the attorney general is silent. (It's not pretty).

When a Bureau of Firearms team visits someone identified by the program, the most important enforcement tool is a congenial special agent at the front door. Since the information developed by the program is too stale to support a search warrant, the objective is to get the suspect to give consent for a search. If the suspect is guilt-ridden or just "felony stupid," he or she will consent. Hard-core crooks are more apt to respond with, "My dog ate the gun" or "I sold it to the Taliban, so please go away, officer" – either of which would unceremoniously terminate the visit.

Recently, a Bee columnist traveled with a nine-agent team as they made night visits to a number of suspects identified by the program. If you're wondering why nine or why at night, the words of a long-retired special agent might explain it: "If it's worth doing, it's worth doing on overtime."

There's a bunch of territory between El Centro and Crescent City. Currently, the attorney general has six teams for the Armed Prohibited Persons System. Even if this is eventually tripled, it will still be inadequate – and tasking her special agents with such work is like having FBI agents provide security at high school basketball games. Local law enforcement has the necessary skills, and a patrol unit may have driven by a suspect's house three times on the same day that a Bureau of Firearms team traveled 200 miles to learn he wasn't home.

McGinness is correct: This program is ideally suited for local law enforcement. There's no need to burn $24 million of "surplus" funds – just send the local agencies the results of the database analysis and let their thousands of patrol units make the contacts. There are probably 500 local law enforcement agencies in California, and in almost every case one of them will be closer to a given target than is a Bureau of Firearms team. Local authorities could have done in months what the Bureau of Firearms hopes to accomplish in years – if ever.

As former attorney general and overseer of the Armed Prohibited Persons System program, Gov. Jerry Brown should have insisted on substance – but by signing SB 140, he opted for symbolism instead.

Steve Helsley of El Dorado Hills is a retired California Dept. of Justice executive and a consultant to the NRA.

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