Capitol Alert

So many guns in California the state can’t keep up. Thousands still own them illegally

Close to 9,400 residents with criminal charges, domestic violence records and mental health issues still possess firearms in California, despite the state’s leadership in creating a first-of-its-kind investigative database that advances efforts to confiscate the weapons.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra unveiled the results Friday as he released a report describing the state’s Armed Prohibited Persons System, which seeks to confiscate weapons from people with criminal records and restraining orders.

Despite removing more than 53,000 people from the system since 2013, the program has struggled to keep up, with fewer than one agent to investigate reports and seize weapons for each California county. Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed spending $5 million more to add more agents.

“We continue to get more cases in, more individuals that we’re getting in the APPS program than we’re able to work,” Becerra said. “I won’t get into how much overtime our men and women have to take to get there.”

The numbers reflect the challenges of the ambitious program, heralded as an original system that cross-references criminal history, mental health records and restraining orders with people who had previously purchased guns legally.

Thirty-five percent of those in the system have a criminal background, and 40 percent have a domestic violence restraining order against them, according to a 2017 assessment. Still another 15 percent are disqualified from owning a gun due to mental health restrictions.

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The database was officially launched under the Bureau of Firearms in 2006, and APPS personnel quickly confiscated 422 firearms in a statewide sweep just months into 2007. But as the number of people added to the list grew, so did the department’s challenges.

In 2012, as many as 15 to 20 people were added to the list each day, and the workload was further exacerbated by dozens of department layoffs and budget cuts from the year before. By 2013, an estimated 39,000 handguns, nearly 2,000 assault weapons and 20,000 people were logged.

The Legislature passed Senate Bill 140 in 2013, carried by former Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, to help relieve the growing mountain of individuals in the system. The bill infused the department with an additional $24 million, to be pulled from the Dealer’s Record of Sale Account over a three-year period.

Then-Attorney General Kamala Harris, now a U.S. Senator pursuing a presidential bid, led the initiative. Her office assured the Legislature that the DOJ, with the money and expanded staff, could eliminate the backlog in three years.

In exchange for the money, the Legislature asked the department to report to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee the status of the system and the number of firearms confiscated each March 1 until 2019.

“It probably was aspirational as much as anything,” Leno said. “We had never really attempted to whittle it down to nothing before, so we approached it with a new consciousness of how important it was to get as many of these weapons out of the hands of those who had them, for obvious reasons.”

The dealer’s sales account charges a $25 fee every time a gun is purchased in California, $19 of which covers background checks and registry. Using those fees freed money to hire 48 additional staff members on a three-year contract basis, including 36 special agents who are tasked with physically removing firearms from individuals. Twenty-two of the 36 limited-term agents were hired full-time in 2015.

Major gun rights groups immediately criticized drawing from a surplus they said came from unreasonable fees.

“The fact that the amount of the DROS fees charged to firearms buyers has been excessive resulting in a surplus does not provide justification to use the money for SB 140 or other non-DROS purposes,” the National Shooting Sports Foundation wrote.

“There were sufficient funds in that account and the Legislature, by a majority vote with the governor’s signature, agreed that those funds could be used for this purpose,” Leno told The Bee.

Yet even with SB 140’s help, 2013 and 2015 state audits of the system signaled continued struggles ahead.

The reports reveal staff members were pulled onto other priorities, and detailed several logistical mistakes due to inadequate desk and unit checklist procedures. State Auditor Elaine Howle also found that the DOJ was insufficiently urging courts and mental health facilities to report individuals who might have firearms.

In a follow-up report to SB 140 in 2016, the department rattled off a list of unforeseen obstacles. In 2014, a new law added long-guns to the list of firearm transaction records, thus dumping thousands more on the backlog. Several vacancies remained, despite a diligent effort to fill SB 140-funded positions. Without the funding, the department argued, there would have been a greater 33,264 people on the list.

Amid bubbling frustration and anxieties regarding the efficacy of the program, a group of 13 Republican state senators authored a scathing letter to Becerra last year that demonstrated their frustration and questioned the attorney general’s leadership.

“Given your department’s dismal progress over the past year toward eliminating the APPS backlog, we can only conclude that keeping firearms out of the hands of dangerous criminals and people with serious mental health issues is not a high priority for your office,” the letter read.

After Becerra’s team briefed lawmakers on the latest report, Sen. Nielsen, R-Red Bluff, said he felt “cautiously optimistic” about the program for the first time.

“We have a ways to go, but I will determine that progress has been made,” Nielsen said, adding that he’ll continue his calls for oversight.

The benefit of the report is giving lawmakers insight into what is working and what is not, said Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, who chairs the Public Safety Committee and budget subcommittee on public safety.

We have local law enforcement up and down the state, and we only have a limited number of people in the DOJ,” she said. “How can we utilize, strengthen that partnership between our DOJ and local law enforcement and the communication between them?”

Skinner said she is also invested in oversight of the department, and that today’s report will not be the last.

And as the lead author of the legislation that was meant as a cure-all, Leno said he still supports the system’s overall mission.

“The need is as great as ever. We can’t turn our back on it,” he said. “Through any creative and innovative additional ways, we need to continue to address this.”

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Hannah Wiley joined The Bee as a legislative reporter in 2019. She produces the morning newsletter for Capitol Alert and previously reported on immigration, education and criminal justice. She’s a Chicago-area native and a graduate of Saint Louis University and Northwestern.