Law enforcement officials have identified more than 17,000 Californians who are breaking the law by owning guns despite having criminal convictions, mental health issues and restraining orders.
This week, a group of lawmakers demanded an oversight hearing to scrutinize the state attorney general’s progress on taking away those guns.
The California Department of Justice outlined the results of its effort to eliminate the backlog of prohibited gun owners in a recent progress report, mandated by a 2013 bill that set aside $24 million to seize guns from people legally barred from having them. California is the only state with a database that cross-references changes in people’s status over time, called the Armed and Prohibited Persons System, or APPS.
Senate Republicans sent a letter to Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, on Tuesday that said the Justice Department report “reflects the failure of the Attorney General and the DOJ to address the APPS backlog and meet the commitments they made to the Legislature” almost two years ago.
Peter DeMarco, spokesman for Sen. Bob Huff, R-Brea, and the Senate Republican Caucus, said the issues raised in the letter would be addressed during a budget subcommittee hearing scheduled for April 30, which includes reviews of the Justice Department, Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Department of State Hospitals and state inspector general’s office.
“While we were surprised that they had already planned to look at these questions, we are certainly happy to hear they are doing so,” DeMarco said, adding that the Justice Department has yet to provide a detailed account of how initial funds were spent or how it intends to use the remaining money to eliminate the backlog in the 16 months left of the time it gave itself to do so.
“We’re almost two years into the program, and there certainly has been progress,” DeMarco said. “But given how much time has elapsed, should we just wait until this is done and ask questions then?”
In its progress report, the Justice Department said it is on pace to “exceed the expectations and goals” of the program and cited recruitment shortcomings last year that limited the number of hires the agency could use to combat the backlog. To date, the Justice Department has hired half of the 36 special agents it planned to add and spent roughly 40 percent of the $24 million dedicated to the program.
The backlog was reduced by roughly 18 percent last year, leaving 17,479 people who together have 34,868 guns.
Justice Department spokeswoman Kristin Ford declined to answer questions about the backlog or the hiring challenges that contributed to it.
“Upon taking office Attorney General (Kamala) Harris hired agents and urged the legislature to fund efforts to eliminate a backlog that was created ten years ago,” Ford said in an emailed statement. “This funding has allowed agents to reduce the backlog for the first time in the program’s history and doubled the average number of guns seized per year.”
California’s system for identifying prohibited gun owners was introduced in 2006. Reducing the backlog of people on the list became a priority for lawmakers after Adam Lanza, who had mental health problems, shot and killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in December 2012. He also killed his mother and later himself.
The bill to remove guns from those with serious mental illness, by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, was one of a host of gun-related measures pushed by lawmakers in the summer of 2013. At the time, Harris said the money would allow the Justice Department to hire additional staff and eliminate the backlog in three years.
But new prohibitions on gun owners implemented in 2014 worsened the problem. Another 7,031 people were added to the database last year, according to the Justice Department. At the same time, between cleared warrants, vacated restraining orders, deceased gun owners and agents visiting gun owners’ homes to take their guns, more than 10,000 people were removed from the system.
An October 2013 audit of the Justice Department’s system to identify prohibited gun owners highlighted weaknesses that “demonstrate that it may be unprepared for an increase in workload.”
The Justice Department “needs to improve its controls over processing the information about persons with mental illness that it receives from reporting entities,” the audit said. “For some of the report records we reviewed, Justice had not entered information it received into the databases that would make the information available for the APPS unit to review.”
This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nikki Frick.
Matt Drange can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @mattdrange.