People who have been convicted of felonies or any of a range of misdemeanors may not own guns in California under state and federal law. Nor may guns be sold to people whose mental illness makes them a danger to themselves or others, who are under domestic violence restraining orders or who are fugitives. Mandatory background checks are supposed to separate the ineligible from the eligible and prevent gun purchases.
But what about people who lawfully own firearms, and then lose that right? Formerly, California had no effective mechanism for collecting those weapons. But in 2006, the state began the Armed and Prohibited Persons System to check the names of people who had legally bought handguns against databases of criminal convictions, mental health determinations, restraining orders and fugitive warrants. The result is an ever-changing list of people — about 4,500 are added each year — who have bought firearms they are no longer allowed to possess.
The attorney general’s Armed and Prohibited Persons program — the first of its kind in the country — began processing the list, but as gun sales across the country began rising during the early Obama administration years, the number of matches grew faster than investigators could act. By early 2013, a backlog of more than 20,000 matched names swamped the program’s 33 agents. So the Legislature approved SB 140, authorizing $24 million over three years to hire 36 additional agents who, beginning in July 2013, would eliminate the backlog.
But because the jobs are temporary, the attorney general’s office says, it has been difficult to attract sufficient staff to clear the backlog. Further, most of the new temporary hires have left, many transferring to permanent positions that opened up elsewhere in the Department of Justice (moves the department can’t block because of labor contracts and personnel rules). At the moment, only 39 of 69 sworn-agent positions are filled — six more than the budgeted staffing level before the extra funding.
Despite the staffing problems and the addition of long guns to the reported-sales database last year, the backlog is now about 16,350, lower than when the new funding became available. Nevertheless, it is still far short of where it should be after 22 months of a 36-month program. Republicans have accused the office of mismanagement and decried an overly rosy annual report in March that claimed the program “is on pace to exceed the expectations and goals.”
At this point, the public benefit rests in more effectively removing weapons from people who should not have them, whether that means an administrative fix or legislative action.