Opinion Columns & Blogs

Editorial: Courts are in the business of knowing the law but weren’t aware of basic gun safety requirement

Courts are in the business of knowing the law. It is, therefore, surprising and unacceptable that courts have failed to fully report the number of individuals who are deemed mentally ill and should lose their gun rights.

The California Bureau of State Audits found that from 2010 to 2012, 34 courts failed to notify the California Department of Justice about at least 2,300 people who had been adjudged mentally ill and so had no right to own guns.

The bureau said 29 courts explained that they were unaware of the requirement, although it has been on the books for more than two decades. Seven courts weren’t sure how many individuals they had deemed mentally incompetent, so the 2,300 is almost certainly an underestimate.

Courts that neglected to file reports ranged from small ones such as Mariposa to those in more urban counties such as Fresno, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, San Francisco and Alameda.

Even in counties that did report, the effort was spotty. State auditors found that in Los Angeles County, court officials failed to report a number of instances to the state.

The Department of Justice, which is most directly responsible for seizing guns of people who have lost their gun-ownership rights, has an obligation to make clear to courts that this is their responsibility.

The department apparently last sent a bulletin in 1991. The audit bureau suggested that the Justice Department ought to try a little more regular outreach. It shouldn’t be complicated. A simple letter to presiding judges in the various counties, or to the chief clerk or the Administrative Office of Courts, ought to suffice.

The report is especially timely, given high-profile instances in which severely mentally ill individuals used guns to kill and maim. Assemblymen Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, and Allan Mansoor, R-Costa Mesa, requested the audit. Achadjian said in a statement the report “confirmed our worst fears – that information about individuals who should be on the list of armed prohibited persons is not being fully reported.”

The Legislature this year allocated $24 million to the Department of Justice to reduce its backlog of guns to be seized. More than 20,000 people had registered their guns and then lost the right because they had committed a crime or were mentally ill.

Perhaps the additional money will help. However, the audit does not instill great confidence. The Department of Justice should encourage local law enforcement agencies, which work closely with county courts, to take a greater role in the important gun program.

Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed legislation by Sen. Lois Wolk, Senate Bill 755, which would have significantly expanded the number of individuals who would lose their gun rights.

The Bee’s editorial board, which supports Wolk’s measure, urged that Wolk and Brown seek a middle ground. We still support the concept. However, before there is further expansion, the Legislature should make sure the program is working as well as it should.