(Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part piece. Part 1 was featured last week)
The California Department of Justice’s Armed and Prohibited Persons Program, known as APP, maintains databases of persons in order to track those who have been deemed prohibited from possessing firearms in cases where those persons may have acquired firearms legally in the past. Persons convicted of a felony, certain violent crimes, with restraining orders, and those deemed “mentally ill” are not allowed by law to own or possess guns.
Using that information, DOJ agents go out and contact the identified individuals with the purpose of seizing the unlawful guns.
After last week’s article with stories of raids by agents with potential erroneous information, The Leader attempted to contact the Firearms Division of DOJ and the particular agents involved, and in both cases, were referred to the department’s press information officer, Michelle Gregory.
Regarding the residence contacts, Gregory said the typical scenario by agents is that when they obtain information about an individual from one of the departments five databanks that “talk to each other,” agents will verify the address and attempt contact with the recognized person to learn the status of the firearms.
“We have over 20,000 persons in that system right now who shouldn’t be having firearms,” Gregory said. “There’s quite a backlog. A lot of leg work goes into it before knocking on the door.”
She said agents team up, sometimes with local law enforcement, and will make a causal contact at an individual’s home.
When told of the Taylor and Dow cases featured in the June 4 issue of The Leader, Gregory said the information is only as good as what is entered into the system.
“If entities aren’t doing it correctly or not updating it, such as courts or hospitals, mistakes can happen,” Gregory said. “It doesn’t happen that often.”
Gregory provided figures for 2014 showing 115 cases closed by agents for Stanislaus County that resulted in 72 firearms and over 2,200 rounds of ammunition seized with seven individuals arrested and 16 cases filed with the district attorney’s office
Gregory said in cases where a contacted individual tells agents another family member has the guns in question or is stored in another location; agents will go verify that information with a visit to that residence. Gregory said firearms will not be seized in those instances where the people holding the guns are not prohibited.
“Not So” says Vern Wheeland
On the evening on Dec. 4, 2013, Vern Wheeland, 73, received a call from his son who told him DOJ agents had just visited his Modesto home and were looking for his guns. His son had told the agents that Wheeland, in unincorporated Stanislaus County, had the guns and in the phone call told his father to expect the agents.
In 2005, Wheeland’s adult son was in the process of going through a divorce in Stanislaus County. According to Wheeland, the divorce was not amicable and had tensions to the point where his son had a restraining order issued against him. Wheeland agreed to take custody of his son’s seven guns per the court order and has had them ever since.
“During his (son’s) hearing, the judge agreed to it and put it on the record,” Wheeland said. “I would think the agents would have checked the court file.”
Wheeland said the agents dressed in “black raid gear” showed up at his house and asked about the guns.
Wheeland said he led the agents to his gun safe and showed the agents the seven guns, among others he personally owned. Wheeland said agents then ran the serial numbers to all his guns and eventually seized one handgun, two shot guns, and four rifles that had belonged to his son.
“They told me they were taking them because we hadn’t done a lawful transfer through a firearms dealer,” Wheeland said. “They’re saying I have to go through the DA to get them back.”
Interestingly, Section 27870 of the California Penal Code states that firearms, other than handguns, (6 of the 7 possessed) do not need paperwork if they were given, gifted, or willed by family members prior to January 2014.
“We were trying to do everything right,” Wheeland said. “I shouldn’t have let them in the house.”
Local D.A. Office Chimes In
“DOJ frequently tells those people because they didn't go through a dealer to do the transfer, they both broke the law,” said David Hutchinson, Firearms Investigator for the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office. “That isn't even true. Parents and children can do a direct transfer and simply mail a form into DOJ.”
Hutchinson said the transfer process is spelled out in sections 16720 and 16730 of the California Penal Code. For handguns, a safety certificate is also required.
“Instead of giving the parents a form to fill out and mail in to keep the guns,” Hutchinson said, “the DOJ seizes them knowing they will likely never try to get them back.”
Hutchinson said his office has had several cases referred to them where the DOJ is seizing guns from someone not prohibited from possession who were doing the right thing by accepting the guns from the actual prohibited person, usually their own child.
Because the DA’s office only tracks cases submitted to them by state agencies under “California Agency” rather than individual entity (CHP, DOJ, DMV, ABC, etc.), they were unable to provide exact figures of DOJ referrals and the number of actual prosecutions that went forward by press time. The process is being revised to accommodate individual state agencies.
“Based on the strength of the evidence of the case, we will proceed (with prosecution) or decline,” Hutchinson said, stating that often the DOJ’s cases lacked supporting documents to show certified prior convictions or actual psychological commitments needed to prove for an APP filing. “These two or three page reports that state the proof is on some rap sheet or computer printout are not adequate.”
Hutchinson estimated that less than half the cases filed as an armed prohibited person go forward and isn’t aware of any that were filed because of psychological commitment.
“Not that we won’t file, but we need evidence to support the charge,” Hutchinson said. “Bottom line is our office reviews every case submitted for prosecution and will charge cases properly investigated.”
Hutchinson was aware of both the Taylor and Dow cases featured in the June 4 edition and stated charges were not filed against them.
“Those guys legally bought guns between then (date of court actions) and now which made them further believe that they could have owned firearms,” Hutchinson said. “How could we prove possession illegally when they were doing everything they were supposed to do?”
Hutchinson estimated that in the last 60 days, he’s received two to three calls a week by persons complaining they were visited by DOJ agents.
Personal Crusade By Attorney General?
Brandon Combs, Executive Director of the Calguns Foundation, classifies the Department of Justice’s latest effort with APP as a “gun-grab” pushed by Attorney General Kamala Harris and her campaign to keep the public from keeping and bearing arms.
Calguns Foundation is a non-profit organization that serves the public through educational and judicial efforts to defend and advance Second Amendment and related civil rights.
“Gun confiscation efforts pushed by Attorney General Kamala Harris have apparently led to unconstitutional arrests of regular, non-prohibited gun owners as well as the seizure of their firearms and ammunition,” said Combs. “Under Kamala Harris, they’ve changed the policy of ‘presumed innocent’ to ‘presumed guilty.’”
Combs said he’s documented additional “horror stories” of citizens who have been raided by agents only to have been determined that the preliminary information obtained by the agents was inaccurate.
“If a database is flawed we have a big problem,” said Combs.
Combs believes the motive for the $24 million “raid” on taxpayers for more agents was nothing more than to create bullet points of news grabbing headlines and generating reports for substance of the unit.
“These frightening raids, often carried out by heavily armed DOJ agents and local law enforcement agencies, aren’t just hitting violent criminals,” Combs stated regarding the APP searches. “What a sad day it is when even elderly law-abiding people need to be on the lookout for Ms. Harris’ gun-grab.”
Combs advises citizens that if they are contacted in one of these incidents to be polite, but prepared to exercise their rights. He said residents should not consent to any search and to remember they are not required to volunteer information or open locked containers.