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.

Shoshana Walter

Shoshana Walter is a reporter for Reveal, covering criminal justice. She and reporter Amy Julia Harris exposed how courts across the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting. It also won the Knight Award for Public Service, a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting, and an Edward R. Murrow Award, and was a finalist for the Selden Ring, IRE and Livingston Awards. It led to numerous government investigations, two criminal probes and five federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery, labor violations and fraud.

Walter's investigation on America's armed security guard industry revealed how armed guard licenses have been handed out to people with histories of violence, even people barred by courts from owning guns. Walter and reporter Ryan Gabrielson won the 2015 Livingston Award for Young Journalists for national reporting based on the series, which prompted new laws and an overhaul of California’s regulatory system. For her 2016 investigation about the plight of "trimmigrants," marijuana workers in California's Emerald Triangle, Walter embedded herself in illegal mountain grows and farms. There, she encountered an epidemic of sex abuse and human trafficking in the industry – and a criminal justice system focused more on the illegal drugs. The story prompted legislation, a criminal investigation and grass-roots efforts by the community, including the founding of a worker hotline and safe house.

Walter began her career as a police reporter for The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida, and previously covered violent crime and the politics of policing in Oakland, California, for The Bay Citizen. Her narrative nonfiction as a local reporter garnered a national Sigma Delta Chi Award and a Gold Medal for Public Service from the Florida Society of News Editors. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she has been a Dart Center Ochberg fellow for journalism and trauma at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim fellow in criminal justice journalism. She is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.