California’s failure to confiscate firearms from people with serious mental illnesses who are not allowed to own guns is creating a risk to public safety, according to State Auditor Elaine Howle in a newly released report.
Of eight changes recommended in a 2013 audit, the new audit found that only one has been implemented: The Department of Justice began informing mental health facilities of their responsibility to report prohibited gun owners to the state.
The Justice Department’s Armed and Prohibited Persons unit is responsible for identifying people who are banned under state and federal law from possessing guns, including those with certain criminal convictions, mental health problems, domestic violence records or restraining orders. Analysts match reports they receive from the courts and mental health facilities with records of firearm owners. It’s the first step before law enforcement officers and agents retrieve the guns.
But investigators are not identifying those individuals quickly enough, leaving thousands of cases untouched.
The report details a chronic backlog. On any given day, auditors said, the unit has 3,600 people to review. That’s on top of the 257,000 individuals who make up the unit’s historical backlog, dating back to 2006.
According to the report, auditors estimate that the department will not be able to finish reviewing those cases until sometime in 2022. At an oversight hearing in April, Bureau of Firearms Chief Stephen Lindley had said his agents need until at least 2018 to reach the bottom of the list.
The auditor’s report follows years of concern about the agency’s progress. In October 2013, the auditor’s office released a report highlighting several of the unit’s deficiencies. Analysts had wrongly identified some individuals as prohibited possessors and failed to identify others. The auditor’s office also found that some courts were not reporting the cases to the unit, even though that is required by law.
Auditors recommended that the department make changes, including analyzing court-reporting trends to identify courts that were failing to report cases and developing a checklist and procedures to help analysts consistently identify prohibited gun owners.
In a written response to the audit, Lindley attributed the problems to a loss of department staff, limited local law enforcement resources and high levels of firearm sales. He said the department planned to add staff and in the meantime pledged to move some department employees into the unit temporarily to help with the backlog. He said a quick reference checklist and procedures for desk analysts would soon be in use.
This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Sheela Kamath.