Off Target: California GOP Embraces Gun-Grab Program

SACRAMENTO ??? Republican legislators are known for their support of gun rights, yet a letter they sent regarding state Attorney General Kamala Harris last week has a man-bites-dog quality about it. A dozen state GOP senators called for an oversight hearing to examine why Harris has been too slow to confiscate the firearms of so-called ???prohibited persons.???

California is the only state to have what is known as the Armed Prohibited Persons System ??? a database created in 2007 that cross-references lists of firearms owners against lists of people who no longer are allowed to own firearms (e.g., those with criminal histories, mental illness or are subject to restraining orders.)

The state Department of Justice then sends agents to the homes of those who are on the list to take away their guns. Following the murders at a Connecticut elementary school in 2013, the Legislature authorized an audit of the program. It also appropriated $24 million after DOJ said the money would enable it to hire more agents and clean up a backlog.

Two years after the passage of that law (SB 140), the department just released its first report. ???Unfortunately, the 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,??? according to the GOP letter sent to Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles.

Instead of hiring 36 agents as promised, the DOJ hired only 18. ???In the six-year period prior to SB 140, DOJ confiscated an average of 1,673 firearms per year,??? the senators wrote. ???In 2014, after the additional $24 million was provided, DOJ confiscated 3,288 guns, a net increase of only 1,616 firearms seized out of over 40,000 thought to be illegally held.???

It???s not surprising Republicans are focusing on potential bureaucratic bungling by a prominent Democratic official (she???s now running for U.S. Senate), but the letter doesn???t address some of the bigger problems that plague this database ??? and that should concern those who champion legal gun ownership.

Many gun-rights activists say the really dangerous folks on the department???s list have long been tracked down given the incentive law-enforcement officials have to find and disarm them. What remains, they say, are people who aren???t dangerous or who are caught up in a bureaucratic snafu.

Gun Owners of California argues that anywhere from 40 percent to 60 percent of the names on the list are there incorrectly. These include people who legally can own firearms, but didn???t know they had to fill out forms or petition the court to restore those rights. Many people don???t even know their names are on the list. A state auditor report from 2013 reviewed a number of confiscation decisions by DOJ and found a large percentage (37 percent) of inaccuracies.

And critics raise questions about how the department???s agents conduct the sweeps. ???They show up in full regalia ??? armor, machine guns and black SUVs,??? said Sam Paredes, the Gun Owners of California???s executive director. ???Very few judges will give search warrants because the information is so sketchy, so they go and knock on the door and try to bully their way into the home.???

Paredes says the department may be using an overly expansive definition of ???possession.??? For instance, if a prohibited person gives his firearm to a relative, agents may claim the ???prohibited??? person still is in possession of the firearm and will go to the relative???s house to take it.

Meanwhile, legislators continually expand the number of misdemeanors that cause one to forfeit gun rights. Given how quietly these legislative changes often are made, it increases the likelihood that generally law-abiding firearms owners might one day find armor-clad agents banging at their door.

Everyone wants dangerous criminals disarmed, but the current system raises other important questions. The Republicans say they want accountability ??? to figure out why the AG???s office hasn???t lived up to its promises. They say they will press Harris to see if she is addressing problems with the databases. That???s great, but unless they zero in on the broader problems with the program, the hearings are bound to miss the target.

This post has been updated.