California Program Hunts Down Illegal Gun Owners
By Elaine Korry
California has some of the most comprehensive gun control laws in the nation. It is also the only state with an active program to disarm people who own guns illegally. Since 2007, the state Department of Justice has been sending trained agents to seize registered firearms from people who have lost their right to own a gun. That can happen after being convicted of a felony or violent misdemeanor, being placed under a restraining order for domestic violence or being adjudicated as mentally unstable.
On a recent evening in Modesto, three white unmarked vans containing special agents of the Bureau of Firearms met at a mall parking lot. After gearing up, they set out on their mission: to track down and seize firearms owned by dangerous criminals.
“27, you good?” The radio crackled as the agents on the team communicated with their supervisor, Special Agent John Marsh. “Yeah, we’re gonna head out to No. 1 on the plan.”
Their first stop was the home of a convicted felon who was on probation. A state database of registered firearms showed that the former narcotics dealer had several guns, which were now prohibited because of his conviction.
The convoy pulled up in front of a one-story tan stucco building surrounded by a chain-link fence. Agents surveyed the scene.
“25, yes, we’re Code 4.”
Satisfied they were in the right place, seven agents — wearing bulletproof vests and carrying .40-caliber Glock pistols — cautiously moved to the front door. Agent Marsh waited as they made contact, and asked for additional support to deal with several dogs in the backyard.
The agents entered the man’s house.They were allowed to search it because he was on probation. The search turned up some ammunition but no weapons. “He said he had sold the guns to a pawnshop, so agents will have to do follow-up to determine if his story is correct or not,” Marsh said.
The team returned empty-handed. But they knew all too well that the guns were out there.
Authorities have identified tens of thousands of registered firearms in California owned by people who have lost their right to possess a gun. The gun seizure program, dubbed APPS, for Armed and Prohibited Persons, generated a list of prohibited owners by cross-referencing court and mental hospital records with the state’s gun registry.
Back on the streets of Modesto, the agents arrived at their second stop. “The next person is also a convicted felon, a female, in possession of two handguns,” Marsh said.
The young woman soon came into the front yard, with several children. The agents entered the house. They did not find any firearms but emerged with a bearded man in handcuffs, who had an outstanding arrest warrant. Patrol cars soon arrived to take him away.
At the third stop, Marsh said the suspect surrendered within minutes. “He has a misdemeanor conviction; he’s prohibited from owning firearms; he has a .22-caliber rifle inside the residence,” said Marsh. “He’s currently in custody, the firearm will be seized and he’ll be transported to Stanislaus County Jail.” For this offense, the man could be charged with a felony.
And Marsh said another potentially lethal weapon, a Sturm Ruger .22-caliber semi-automatic with a collapsible stock, was taken out of circulation
Statewide last year, Bureau of Firearms agents seized nearly 2,000 firearms and more than 100,000 rounds of ammunition through the APPS program. Last month the California State Senate approved a bill by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) to appropriate $24 million in new funding to add 36 agents to this unique program. Currently 33 agents are spread over the entire state, which officials say is inadequate.
“This is a very labor-intensive process,” said Michelle Gregory, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Kamala Harris. According to Gregory, this type of law enforcement requires extensive background work: cross-checking databases; tracking down addresses; and constantly updating records.
“We have analysts that then go and check all that information,” Gregory said. “Once that’s done, these agents that you see out here tonight get those case files, go through them, and then come out and try to get those firearms.”
One of the biggest challenges for the APPS program is that the state cannot identify guns that have never been registered. But John Marsh is convinced his agents have saved lives by disarming dangerous people. He said on a good night the team might collect a dozen or more illegal weapons. And they rarely have a bad night, he said: “Bad nights don’t happen very often. We’re usually successful in disarming individuals every time we go out.”
The APPS program has won even the support of the pro-gun lobby. Sam Paredes, chief lobbyist for Gun Owners of California, which has about 30,000 members, said he has no objections to the APPS program. “It’s about crime control and not gun control,” Paredes said. “It is going after people who by their own actions have gone from being lawful gun owners to unlawful gun owners.”
In January, Attorney General Harris wrote to Vice President Joe Biden, promoting California’s APPS program as a national model. She also announced her support for U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson’s legislation to create a national grant program that would allow other states to start their own programs to seize illegal guns.