Almost two years after lawmakers set aside $24 million to seize guns from thousands of people banned from having them, a new California Department of Justice report shows that the backlog of prohibited gun owners shrunk by less than one-fifth from a year earlier.
There were almost 17,500 people in the Armed and Prohibited Persons System as of Dec. 31, 2014. That was down by about 18 percent from the more than 21,000 in the database as of January 2014, according to the department’s March 1 report to the Legislature.
The department reported hiring 18 additional agents to enforce the prohibited-persons program, half of the agents state Attorney General Kamala Harris said would be added after lawmakers approved Senate Bill 140 in May 2013. This month’s report blamed “hiring challenges” and said recruitment will improve with the arrival of additional applicants from the Department of Justice Special Agent Academy.
“Looking ahead to 2015, the California Department of Justice, Bureau of Firearms is on pace to continue to exceed the expectations set forth in Senate Bill 140,” the report reads.
Senate Republicans said Tuesday the report highlights “the failure of the Attorney General and the DOJ” to address the backlog in the prohibited persons database, an issue that became a Capitol priority in the wake of the December 2012 killings of 20 schoolchildren and six adults in Sandy Hook, Conn.
In a letter to Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, several GOP senators called for a hearing on the program, in part to demand that justice officials explain how the department has spent 40 percent of the $24 million “when they didn’t hire the needed staff to end the backlog.”
“It is critical given the potential consequences of these firearms remaining in the hands of people that should not have them and the failure of DOJ to meet its own commitments to the Legislature and those required by statute,” Tuesday’s letter reads.
The Senate weeks ago scheduled an April 30 budget subcommittee hearing that will include the Department of Justice. Senators will be able to ask department officials about the prohibited-persons database backlog then, said de León spokeswoman Claire Conlon.
In a statement, Department of Justice spokeswoman Kristin Ford said “removing guns from dangerous, violent individuals who are prohibited by law from owning them has been a top priority of the California Department of Justice” and the 2013 legislation “has allowed agents to reduce the backlog for the first time in the program’s history and doubled the average number of guns seized per year.”
Harris’ office did not specifically respond to Senate Republicans’ allegations.
California is the only state with a prohibited-persons database that cross-references gun owner licenses with certain criminal convictions, mental health records and active domestic violence restraining orders. In the years after the database began in 2006, authorities blamed a lack of money for hindering efforts to track down those people and confiscate their guns, with about 3,000 people added to the database annually.
Harris and other supporters of SB 140 said at the time that the money would allow authorities to expand efforts to tackle the backlog, which stood at almost 20,000 people with 40,000 guns in early 2013. “These funds will allow the Department of Justice to increase the number of agents conducting these smart and effective operations,” Harris said in a May 2013 statement.
At a January 2013 legislative hearing, then-Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, pressed a Harris aide on how much money the department would need to eliminate the backlog. The aide initially described a plan to eliminate the backlog in three years, at $8 million a year. Under questioning from Steinberg, though, the aide at one point seemed to suggest the problem could be handled in a single year.
This month’s report from Harris’ office details the impact of gun-restriction laws that took effect after the approval of SB 140, including legislation that increased from six months to five years the amount of time a person is prohibited from having a gun after threatening violence to a licensed psychotherapist. Those measures added more than 7,000 people to the prohibited-persons database, the report said.
“Without any action the database would have grown to 28,280 persons,” the report said.
Almost 4,000 people were removed from the database after authorities cleared warrants, judges vacated restraining orders, or the people died. Investigators removed another 6,879 people from the database after contacting them and seizing their guns, for a net backlog of 17,479 at the end of 2014.
The backlog is not the only problem confronting efforts to prevent certain people from possessing guns. A November 2013 state audit concluded that the Department of Justice and courts failed to identify thousands of mentally ill people who should be covered by the prohibition.
Editor’s note: This post was updated at 4:35 p.m. and 5:25 p.m. March 17 to include comment from de León’s office and the Department of Justice.
Call Jim Miller, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5521. Follow him on Twitter @jimmiller2.