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Northern California shooter exploited 'honor system' in telling court he had no guns

Northern California shooter exploited 'honor system' in telling court he had no guns
FBI investigators process evidence at the Rancho Tehama Elementary School on Tuesday. (Randall Benton / Sacramento Bee)

When Kevin Janson Neal told a judge in February that he’d turned over his only firearm, authorities relied on the “honor system,” as they often do, in taking him at his word, a Tehama County sheriff’s official said.

In the statement he made in a Feb. 22 court filing in response to a civil harassment restraining order against him, Neal said that he had turned in a single pistol to a Red Bluff gun business and that he had no other guns, records show.

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Last Tuesday, Neal took a semi-automatic rifle he assembled at home, a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun registered to his wife and a .45-caliber Glock pistol he purchased in North Carolina in 2009 and went on a shooting rampage across Rancho Tehama that left four people dead. Authorities later discovered that Neal had killed his wife the night before.

On Monday, investigators said they don’t yet have information about the rifle Neal used — or a second one found in a search after the attack. There is a record of Neal’s Glock in North Carolina, they said, but no record in California.

“The justice system relies on the honor system,” Tehama County Assistant Sheriff Phil Johnston told The Times in an interview Friday. “You have to see what it is on its face. Did the guy meet the requirements of the court?”

Experts say that after Neal turned over a firearm and said he had no more, there was no legal requirement that authorities check that he had told the truth because he was not a felon.

“That would be pie in the sky. There aren’t resources to be able to check out the veracity of someone’s claims,” former Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said. “All you do is wait for a violation and bring it to the attention of the court.”

In Neal’s case, that’s what those who lived near him had tried to do.

Neal’s neighbors — including one he killed during his rampage — had told the Tehama County Sheriff’s Office that Neal still had guns and was still shooting on his property. But despite visits to his home, repeated traffic stops and car searches, authorities never caught him in the act, Johnston said.

If they had seen him with a gun, they would have referred the case to county prosecutors. Neal was out on $160,000 bail stemming from a violent confrontation with his neighbor in January. He was subject to both a criminal protective order not to possess guns and the civil harassment order.

“I hope that you don’t think this individual is the only one in our community that we monitor,” Johnston said. “Absolutely not. There are literally hundreds.”

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