It may sound unlikely that a person with a criminal history that bars them from owning a gun in California would try to legally purchase one. But it happens. A lot.
California’s Department of Justice denied permits to 7,500 people last year who applied to purchase guns from a licensed dealer. More than half failed the state’s mandatory background check because of a domestic violence restraining order, misdemeanor or felony conviction, or because they’re wanted fugitives.
“They don’t get the gun. It’s as simple as that.” says Justice Department spokeswoman Michelle Gregory. "We notify the dealer so that they don’t release [a gun] to them and they can’t pick it up.”
They don’t get the weapon, but are they prosecuted for trying to attain it? State Senator Roderick Wright (D-LA) thinks they should be.
“Something in the milk ain’t white, but it's not being pursued,” said Wright at a legislative hearing earlier this year on gun control.
Wright confronted Justice Department agent Steve Lindley during the hearing.
“How many people have we busted for that?” Wright asked.
Lindley's reply: “Not enough.”
Lindley said the Justice Department lacks enough agents to bust the thousands of illegal gun permit applicants each year. So it sends a letter to the District Attorney and law enforcement officials in the city where the customer tried to purchase the gun.
Covina Police Chief Kim Raney, who heads the California Police Chiefs Association, thinks it's unlikely — at best — that his members would pursue such matters further.
“Police chiefs are all on board to take guns away from prohibited people," Raney says, "I’m not sure they’re going to go after somebody when the transaction didn’t take place.”
Raney says one obstacle is that the Justice Department doesn’t immediately disclose the reason why the gun permit was denied, so law enforcement would have to invest time just to find out if the denial is worth pursuing.
Raney says the odds of being able to make an arrest are also low because people can apply to purchase a handgun anywhere in the state.
“You could have somebody from Northern California down in Southern California trying to purchase a gun," Raney observes. "If that transaction’s denied, it’s really not realistic that law enforcement’s going to use its resources to try and track that person down.”
“The intent of the law, obviously, is not just to catch people, it’s to prevent violence,” says Garen Wintemute of the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program.
Wintemute says while California’s criminal justice system may lack the resources to arrest, prosecute and detain everyone who breaks the law by trying to purchase a gun, studies show the background checks and denial of gun sales still deter criminals:
“Among people who are affected, this kind of policy drops rates of crime and violence by 25-30 percent” Wintemute says. “That’s a big effect.”
Even if California had enough police and jails and prosecutors to put all these people away—Wintemute thinks criminal justice experts would likely agree the best use of those resources would be to focus on the minority of the population that commits the most serious violence. He says, usually those are people law enforcement knows well and are watching.