California's Plan to Keep Guns From Criminals Is Overwhelmed by Rising Gun Sales

California is the only state in the nation where agents can compare gun sales to court data to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, but a recent audit shows that the program is not living up to its potential.
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(Photo: M&R Glasgow/Flickr)

(Photo: M&R Glasgow/Flickr)

Gun sales are booming in California, despite the state having some of the most comprehensive policies in the country to keep weapons out of the hands of criminals. But a report released last week from the State Auditor finds that some illegally owned weapons may still be slipping through the cracks.

Between 1982 and 2014, the number of firearms sold in the state tripled from nearly 312,000 to more than 931,000, according to the California Department of Justice. In retail stores, mandatory background checks are meant to weed out individuals with criminal histories and mental illness who have been barred from purchasing weapons; last year, dealers in California denied more than 8,500 prospective buyers. Still, studies show that as many as 40 percent of felons convicted of gun-related crimes were already prohibited from owning a gun when they committed the crime.

Some illegal gun owners come about their weapons on the black market or through private sales, which occur at gun shows and increasingly online, and don’t require background checks. (In California, only licensed retail stores can sell guns, making it one of the few states without this "gun-show loophole.") Others purchase guns legally before losing the right to carry the weapons. To track down such criminals, in 2001, the state mandated the creation of a database that cross-references information on gun buyers obtained from criminal background check databases with court and medical data from the state. The program, called the Armed Prohibited Persons System, then sends out teams of special agents from the California Department of Justice to knock on doors and take back the illicit weapons.

As many as 40 percent of felons convicted of gun-related crimes were already prohibited from owning a gun when they committed the crime.

"People hand them over more often than you might expect," Vince Beiser wrote in 2013. The program helps the state's Justice Department recover thousands of illegally owned weapons every year. It’s the first program of its kind in the United States, and, according to Beiser, California may be the only state where it could work:

The program has been running quietly since 2007. In the wake of the Newtown massacre, though, media from local newspapers to the national networks have run admiring stories on it. Nationwide, [gun researchers] estimate that as many as 180,000 people should be on a prohibited-persons list. Still, the chance that other states will set up similar programs is slim at best. The problem isn’t just that passing gun-control measures is an uphill battle; it’s that California is essentially the only state that has the data to make the program possible.

But an audit report from the state released in late 2013 showed that the Armed Prohibited Persons System was not reaching its potential. The program relies on courts and mental health facilities to identify individuals with diagnoses that disqualify them from gun ownership. But the 2013 audit, which focused specifically on prohibitions due to mental illness, found that many courts were not aware of any state law requiring that they report such information to the Justice Department. The 34 courts surveyed in the audit had let 2,300 cases that should have been reported to the Justice Department slip through the cracks. The audit gave the Justice Department a list of recommendations to get back on track, including yearly assessments of court reporting levels, periodically updating the department's list of mental health facilities, and adding quality control measures to the procedures the department uses to verify matches. But two years later, little progress has been made.

Much of the delay comes down to simple logistics: Thousands of matches pour in every year, and the Justice Department has to carefully review each match to determine whether the identified are in violation of current gun laws and how many weapons they may have in their possession.*

In May of 2013, Governor Jerry Brown appropriated an additional $24 million to help support the program, but still the backlog of potential illegal owners persists. A 2015 audit revealed that, today, there are roughly 3,600 matches in the program's daily queue of matches to review, up from a peak of around 1,200 in 2013. As of April of this year, the historical backlog, which includes matches dating back to 2006 when the Justice Department implemented the database, was a whopping 257,000—hundreds of thousands of individuals that may be walking around with guns they have no right to own. The 2015 report predicts that the backlog likely won’t be cleared until the year 2022.

In a statement to the Los Angeles Times, the Justice Department blamed ballooning gun sales and a shrinking staff for the continued backlog, as the department had to prioritize its efforts to complete criminal history checks of gun buyers over the cross-referencing system.

"The longer it takes Justice to review the records in its backlogs, the longer armed prohibited persons keep their firearms," wrote Elaine Howle, the California State Auditor, "which increases the risk to public safety."

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Since We Last Spoke examines the latest policy and research updates to past Pacific Standard news coverage.

*UPDATE — July 23, 2015: This article has been updated to better describe how frequently the Justice Department has to sort through matches.

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