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California lags in reducing number of felons with firearms as gun sales pick up amid coronavirus

Dozens of rifles and handguns on tables
Dozens of guns confiscated by the Anaheim Police Department from a home where two men were arrested.
(Anaheim Police Department)

California has made little progress in reducing the number of felons and mentally ill people who improperly own firearms even as state agents have confiscated thousands of weapons from prohibited owners, according to a new report from the state Department of Justice.

The report was released at a time when Los Angeles County and other local jurisdictions have ordered gun stores closed over concerns about crowds of gun buyers gathering to stock up on firearms and ammunition during the shutdown over COVID-19.

The FBI this week separately reported a 41% jump last month in background checks for people seeking to buy guns in the U.S., compared with March 2019.

The number of people in the state’s database who have guns though they are barred from owning them totaled 22,424 as of Jan. 1, down just 798 from 23,222 a year earlier because nearly as many people were added to the list as were removed by state Justice Department agents

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The large number of people in the state’s Armed and Prohibited Persons System, or APPS, database has been a concern of lawmakers for more than six years as the state has struggled with a series of mass shootings and despite additional funding aimed at addressing staffing shortages in the program.

In an annual report required by the Legislature, the agency said its agents last year recovered 2,130 firearms but said it was hampered by inadequate staffing and other issues.

Assembly Republican Leader Marie Waldron of Escondido called the number of people on the list “unacceptable.”

“This is a persistent and maddening problem that I don’t think our attorney general or his predecessor have made into the priority it should be,” she said in a statement, noting that she hoped to work with state Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra on doubling the number of firearms recovered next year.

To improve results, the state Justice Department report recommended requiring all courts to confiscate weapons at the time of conviction, better coordination with county law enforcement and modernization of the database to reduce manual processes.

“Even during these challenging times, we remain committed to maintaining critical operations and keeping firearms out of the hands of dangerous and violent individuals,” Becerra said in a statement, adding that he will work with the governor and lawmakers “to ensure we have the tools and resources necessary to tackle dynamic firearms challenges head on.”

In 2006, California became the first state to create a database that matches the names of people who buy firearms with those who are later convicted of a felony, determined to have serious mental illness or otherwise are disqualified from possessing guns.

The state stepped up efforts to reduce a backlog on the list after the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which resulted in the death of 20 children and six adults.

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At that time, the Legislature approved $24 million over three years to reduce the backlog of prohibited persons that had topped 20,000 people.

But the state has been unable to significantly cut the number of prohibited persons, according to the annual report sent to the Legislature late Wednesday.

Last year, the DOJ removed 9,755 people from the APPS database by seizing their firearms or determining they no longer own guns or have been cleared of disqualifications.

However, 8,957 were added to the database last year, when the Justice Department had 45 special agents and special agent supervisors working on the issue, fewer than the 50 agents assigned to the task in 2018.

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“Despite a recent salary increase, efforts to hire new sworn personnel continue to be thwarted by the difficult working conditions and lack of competitive compensation for agents as compared to other state and local law enforcement agencies,” the Justice Department report said.

At the start of this year, 54% of people in the APPS database were barred from owning firearms because of a felony conviction, 24% because of federal law involving gun violations, 19% because they were subject to a restraining order, and 18% were banned from having a gun because of mental health problems.

Others were on the list because of serious misdemeanor convictions or as a condition of probation.

Advocates for gun owners have sued the state in recent years to remove nonviolent felons and misdemeanants from the list of prohibited persons, and three of the cases are pending in the court of appeals, according to the Firearms Policy Coalition, which is supporting the litigation.

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“Our position is that nonviolent felons should not be prohibited from possessing or acquiring arms, and that California’s APPS program is a dismal failure that does little but give politicians a topic for press releases,” the group said in a statement Wednesday.


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