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California Takes Back Legally Purchased Guns Held by Now-Prohibited Owners

July 23, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
California’s Armed and Prohibited Persons program has recovered more than 10,000 guns that were purchased legally, but by people who are now prohibited from owning them. Critics say the program is expensive and time-consuming. NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels reports on whether other states could use the same model.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now the second in our series of stories this week on efforts to reduce gun violence.

Tonight, Spencer Michels reports on a California program to take guns away from those who no longer should legally have them.

AGENT: Hey, partner, what’s your name?  

MAN: William.

AGENT: William, you on probation right now?

MAN: Yes, sir.

AGENT: OK. You live here right now?

MAN: Yes.

AGENT: OK. Which one is your room?

MAN: I don’t have a room.

AGENT: You don’t have a room? Where do you stay?

MAN: I’m temporarily here. I sleep in the living room.

AGENT: You sleep in the living room?

MAN: Yes, sir.

AGENT: OK. Do me a favor. Just while you are here right now, just take your hands out of your pockets for me, OK?

MAN: Oh, sure. I’m sorry

AGENT: That’s all right. Do you have anything here that is illegal?

MAN: No, sir.


MAN: No, sir. I just got out of jail. No, I …

AGENT: When did you get out of jail?

MAN: March.

AGENT: In March.

MAN: Yes, sir.

AGENT: OK. What were you in the county for?

MAN: Felony possession of a firearm.

AGENT: Is that right?

MAN: Yes, sir.

SPENCER MICHELS: On a residential street in Sacramento county, Kisu Yo supervises a team of nine agents from California’s Department of Justice looking for guns state records tell them are in the hands of those forbidden from having them.

KISU YO, California Department of Justice: We’re going to go talk to people that have a domestic violence restraining order, people who have been convicted of a felony, people who have mental health commitments.

So, these are the people that have legally acquired and purchased firearms legally at one time or another in their life, and since then, they have become prohibited from possessing firearms.


SPENCER MICHELS: California, which has the country’s most comprehensive records of firearm purchases, is the only state sending agents door-to-door, confiscating legally purchased guns from people who later became barred from owning them.

Garen Wintemute, a professor of emergency medicine at the University of California at Davis, specializes in violence prevention, and he helped the state develop the Armed Prohibited Persons system.

DR. GAREN WINTEMUTE, University of California, Davis: We spend a great deal of time trying to prevent people who are prohibited already from buying guns.

The smart new idea was this:

What about the other way around? What about somebody who’s bought a gun before, legally, and now they’re a prohibited person? And the smart new idea was, let’s go take them back.

SPENCER MICHELS: The goal of the program, which began in 2007, is to prevent gun violence, like the case of Roy Perez, a mentally ill man in Los Angeles who shot to death three people in 2008, despite being on the state’s armed prohibited persons list.

KISU YO: It’s a great program. Whenever you take out one firearm off the street, you’re making a difference. But when we go out, we’re taking out five, 10, 20, 30, 40 guns, depending on the night.

This right here is an AK-47-style assault rifle with a 100-round drum magazine that was confiscated last night in Napa County from a mentally health committed person. The bottom line is, they’re prohibited from possessing them, so we end up confiscating them and then taking them to jail.

SPENCER MICHELS: Over the last six years, agents have seized more than 10,000 guns from around the state, and records show there are 40,000 more still out there.

Agents use an automated system which compares the state’s massive database of people who have purchased guns legally with other databases that record every felony and violent misdemeanor conviction, involuntary mental illness confinement, or temporary restraining order. The results can be impressive.

KISU YO: All the firearms here on this table have been confiscated within the last — past six months. This is a .500-caliber revolver. It’s the most powerful handgun known to us.

SPENCER MICHELS: But it’s tricky work. Since law enforcement isn’t sure where the guns are today — many people on the list purchased their guns years ago — the agents usually don’t have the probable cause needed to obtain search warrants, so they use persuasion to gain access. If firearms are discovered that are registered to the person, an arrest can be made.

Gun enthusiast Gene Hoffman, chairman of Calguns Foundation, says he supports the aim of the gun confiscation program, but he has serious problems with the ways agents go about looking for the weapons.

GENE HOFFMAN, Calguns Foundation: I think they should be able to convince a judge that there’s reasonable suspicion or probable cause, because firearm possession in the home is one of those protected fundamental rights.

SPENCER MICHELS: He also thinks the program is simply ineffective because agents can’t force people to let them search their homes.

GENE HOFFMAN: You need a warrant to search someone’s house, so the people who most have something to hide can simply say no thank you and close the door in the face of these agents.

SPENCER MICHELS: Despite such skepticism, California’s program has been cited as a possible model for other states seeking to prevent gun violence in the wake of recent national tragedies.

Statewide, the program employs 33 agents, but this spring it got a big boost when the legislature approved an additional $24 million to more than double the number of agents looking for guns. California attorney general Kamala Harris had lobbied for the additional money because the backlog was growing, and the agents couldn’t keep up.

KISU YO: We’re going to eliminate the backlog within the next three years.

AGENT: Hey, guys, can you do me a favor? Can you guys all go inside?

SPENCER MICHELS: Agents search for prohibited guns almost every day throughout California. It’s a time-consuming and expensive operation. Sometimes, they find guns. Sometimes, they don’t.

On a recent evening, we rode along as agents went to 13 residences. No guns were found. Most of the people they were looking for had moved away, some several years ago.

KISU YO: We do the best we can to find the most current addresses. Sometimes, that — we find that they have given us false addresses. So, a lot of times, we have to do a lot of follow-ups on the back end to obtain or locate the subjects.

WOMAN: Sounds like she moved to Arkansas. Got a cell number on her husband.

KISU YO: Copy that. Moved out of state, Arkansas.

SPENCER MICHELS: Some guns rights advocates, like Northern California gun store owner Roman Kaplan, don’t oppose the concept of getting guns out of the hands of criminals or the mentally ill, but he’s skeptical the program will do much good in preventing shootings, as in Connecticut.

ROMAN KAPLAN, gun store owner: It’s always hysterical reaction. It’s always knee-jerk reaction. After anything happens, there’s always knee-jerk reaction. It usually doesn’t lead to anything; it’s just a way for politicians to show that we do something.

SPENCER MICHELS: Kaplan is annoyed that people who want to purchase a gun legally at his store are saddled with a $25 background check fee, which is being used to pay for the new agents.

ROMAN KAPLAN: With all the limitations put by California legislation on legal gun owners, it doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t make anyone safer.

SPENCER MICHELS: Calgun’s Hoffman, a high-tech entrepreneur, says he has concerns about the accuracy of the databases used by the state. But his main problem is who is not being targeted: criminals in high-crime areas.

GENE HOFFMAN: I don’t necessarily think that these raids are capturing the types of criminals that are most likely to cause problems with firearms. It would be far more valuable for these folks to be following up on straw purchases in places like East Oakland and Compton. This is where most of the firearms are getting into the hands of the truly violent.

SPENCER MICHELS: But violence prevention expert Wintemute says the state is now targeting individuals who are more likely to commit a crime.

DR. GAREN WINTEMUTE: The risk for doing another crime is highest immediately after that first crime has been committed, and it goes down with the time thereafter.

We need to go after everybody, the new felons, and the new violent misdemeanants, and the people who’ve just been served with domestic violence restraining orders, and the people who’ve just been hospitalized because a mental health professional has determined that they are a danger to themselves or to somebody else, and now they have been released.

SPENCER MICHELS: Experts say it is impossible to know exactly how many guns in California have been purchased illegally or brought in from out of state.

Still, the agents who put on their flak jackets and walk up to unfamiliar doorways contend they are making a difference, getting guns out of the hands of those they know shouldn’t have them.