Crime & Justice

Calif. Dept. of Justice: 19,784 state residents own guns who shouldn't

TEC-9 handguns, some modified into fully automatic weapons, were recovered. The LAPD also held gun buybacks on Wednesday in South L.A. at the LA Memorial Sports Arena.
TEC-9 handguns, some modified into fully automatic weapons, were recovered. The LAPD also held gun buybacks on Wednesday in South L.A. at the LA Memorial Sports Arena.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

State officials and gun owners agree on one thing: California needs to seize guns from people who are legally barred from owning them.

At a Capitol hearing Tuesday, a state Department of Justice official testified that 19,784 people who own guns in the state aren’t supposed to. These are people with registered guns who were later convicted of felonies or are under domestic violence restraining orders, or have been diagnosed with a mental illness that could make them a threat to themselves and others.

The DOJ keeps their names in a database called the Armed Prohibited Persons List.

Stephen Lindley, who heads the agency’s Bureau of Firearms, said the state confiscated 3,891 guns from prohibited people over the last couple of years. But he told members of the Senate and Assembly Public Safety Committees that his agency can’t keep up because the database grows by roughly 2,000 people a year.

“Despite our best efforts, the bureau does not have the funding or resources to keep up with this annual influx of cases to reduce the backlog,” Lindley said.

Lindley estimates the DOJ would need to hire an additional 50 investigators to clear the backlog of cases. The task would take three years and cost an estimated $25 million.

Senate Pro Tem Darrel Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said it might be worth it to shorten that timeline to six months.

“It seems to me that an $8 million, a $15 million, a $20 million a year investment in getting guns out of the hands of prohibited persons would be a very wise and worthy investment,” said Steinberg.

40,000 firearms

The backlog of nearly 20,000 prohibited people the DOJ hopes to investigate hold a total of  40,000 firearms: about 38,000 handguns and 2,000 assault weapons.

Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez (R-Riverside) said state hospitals could do a better job notifying the DOJ when a person with a mental illness threaten violence against a specific person.

“To me the issue isn't the firearm that’s used, it's the person using it,” said Melendez, who's a former Navy intelligence officer. “I don’t care what type of weapon you’re taking in somewhere, if you want to kill someone you’re going to find a way to do it.”

Senator Roderick Wright (D-LA) said the DOJ also fails to investigate people who fail the state’s background check when they apply to buy a gun — a likely indication that they’re felons or lied on the application.

“Every year thousands of people who apply to you for their gun are turned down, but there’s no follow up for why they were turned down,” Roderick said.  “So you clearly have something in the milk ain’t white, but it isn’t pursued."

Lindley said the DOJ investigates as many denials as possible, but he said last year the agency rejected roughly 8,500 people who applied to purchase guns statewide.

“It’s difficult for us to investigate those crimes,” said Lindley, noting that his office tells local authorities where the person lives and tried to buy the gun.

“Do they investigate those?" asked Lindley. "Not as much as we would like.”

Attorney General Kamala Harris has convened a leadership group on gun violence for local attorney generals to improve enforcement of firearms laws. Harris scheduled the first meeting in Los Angeles in February.