California law boosts confiscation of illegal guns: Model for other states?

The California measure, signed into law Wednesday, authorizes $24 million to hire additional agents for a state program that takes away firearms from people prohibited from owning them.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP/File
California Attorney General Kamala Harris looked over some of the guns seized from individuals legally barred from possessing them following a news conference in Sacramento, Calif., in June 2011. This state program, signed into law Wednesday, is crucial to public safety and could be a model for other states looking to enforce similar laws, Ms. Harris said.

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed legislation Wednesday that will increase funding for a state program that confiscates firearms from people prohibited from owning them because they have violent criminal pasts or mental illnesses.

Senate Bill 140 authorizes $24 million for the state to hire additional agents for its Armed & Prohibited Persons System (APPS), which has lacked sufficient resources to clear a growing backlog of illegally possessed firearms in the state, said state Sen. Mark Leno (D) of San Francisco, who co-wrote the bill.

“We know for the safety of our communities that these people should not possess guns, and our reinvestment in this tracking program gives us the opportunity to confiscate them,” Senator Leno said in a statement.

According to state Department of Justice estimates, 20,000 Californians who collectively own 39,000 handguns and 1,670 assault weapons are in fact prohibited from owning firearms because they have been convicted of a felony or violent misdemeanor, placed under a domestic-violence restraining order, or determined to be mentally unstable. As many as 20 people are added to the list each day.

California is the only state with an APPS program, which cross-references five databases to identify people who have legally purchased guns since 1996 but are now prohibited from owning or possessing firearms. The legislation will allow the state attorney general to hire 36 agents and support staff for APPS.

"This bill cuts right to the heart of the problem, getting guns away from people who aren't supposed to have them," state Assemblywoman Susan Eggman (D) of Stockton told The Sacramento Bee last month.

This program is crucial to public safety and could be a model for other states looking to enforce similar laws, California Attorney General Kamala Harris said.

“California is leading the nation in a common-sense effort to protect public safety by taking guns away from dangerous, violent individuals who are prohibited by law from owning them,” Ms. Harris said in a statement Wednesday.

Harris sent a letter to Vice President Joe Biden in January, urging him to consider APPS as a national model, and she supported legislation introduced by US Rep. Mike Thompson (D) of California that would create the federal Armed Prohibited Persons Act of 2013 – a competitive grant program for states to develop their own APPS programs.

“No matter which side of this debate you are on, no one wants criminals or people with a history of dangerous mental illness to have guns,” said Representative Thompson, chairman of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, in a statement when he introduced the bill in February. “[The bill] simply gives states an incentive to develop successful programs that will keep guns out of the hands of people we all agree shouldn’t have them.”    

Thompson pointed to other states developing similar systems: The New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement (SAFE) Act included provisions to remove firearms from persons prohibited from having them, and Iowa already has a system to ensure that people with domestic-violence restraining orders give up their guns.

The National Rifle Association and gun-rights groups agree on the idea behind the law, but they did not support the California bill because of the cost burden it put on gun owners. The $24 million will come from extra fees that will be added to gun purchases.

"Going after criminals is a good thing, but the way they are paying for it is grossly unfair," Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California, told the Los Angeles Times. "They are putting the entire burden on the back of law-abiding gun purchasers."

Mr. Paredes said the state should instead create an education campaign to inform citizens who may not know they are disqualified from owning a firearm. It would be cheaper than doubling the number of agents in the APPS program, he said.

Some state Republican lawmakers also opposed the bill because of the funding issue, but the bill passed with more than the needed two-thirds votes. The Assembly passed it with more than the needed two-thirds vote Wednesday, and the state Senate passed it unanimously last month.  

"This bipartisan bill makes our communities safer by giving law enforcement the resources they need to get guns out of the hands of potentially dangerous individuals," Evan Westrup, a spokesman for Governor Brown, told the Los Angeles Times.

This is the first of several gun-control bills introduced in California in response to the recent shootings in Connecticut and Colorado.

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