(Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part special series.)
With firearms being topical in the wake of the mass shooting in Isla Vista, California that left seven dead and 13 wounded, the debate about what, if anything, should be done about gun ownership and possession rages on.
Under state law, a legally registered gun owner loses the right to own a firearm when he or she is convicted of a felony or specified misdemeanor crime or is deemed mentally ill.
Beginning in 2007, California officials began accumulating names from court records, medical facilities and lists of known or wanted criminals, and then cross-referenced them against the federal background check system for gun-buyers. The list is updated every day.
The Armed and Prohibited Persons Program, known as APP, was originally billed as going after dangerous people, but for the most part, with some exceptions, lately has not been aimed at the dangerous of society.
California is the only state to use a program like APP, which cross references five databases to find people who have legally purchased handguns, shotguns, and rifles with people banned from owning or possessing firearms.
Using these lists, and drawing information out of several other databases, Department of Justice agents, outfitted in black raid gear wearing bulletproof vests and armed with .40-caliber Glock pistols and Tasers, team up in squads of nine to go out and seize firearms from people the state has designated “prohibited persons” – people who at one time purchased firearms legally, but have since run afoul of the law.
In 2011 and 2012, DOJ agents investigated nearly 4,000 people and seized roughly 4,000 weapons, including nearly 2,000 handguns and more than 300 assault weapons. In 2013, the unit did 3,885 investigations and took 2,714 firearms.
Part of the problem, however, is the state hasn’t regularly informed people they’re prohibited from owning a firearm.
What began as a best-intentioned pilot program to get firearms out of the hands of dangerous criminals, felons, and the mentally unstable, now has turned into a stat-focused gun-grab targeting longtime law abiding citizens.
Opponents claim that APP rarely actually leads to seizures from “violent felons” or “people found mentally ill by a court” as the Attorney General has claimed in order to justify the cost of the program.
Foray On Taylor Residence
One such “raid” came on the Stanislaus County home of Elmer Taylor, a 67-year-old great-grandfather and Vietnam vet.
Taylor, who was originally from Southern California, was arrested in 1973 for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana, a felony at that time, but an offense now that has since been decriminalized with a fine of no more than $100 with the record getting purged after one year.
Taylor pleaded in 1973 to a 36-month unsupervised probation that he completed in 1976. He went on with life, later moving to Stanislaus County and raising a family. At one time he even served as a juror on the Stanislaus County Grand Jury.
Over the course of time, Taylor legally purchased four firearms – two rifles and two pistols – and each time filled out the proper paperwork and picked them up after the standard waiting period.
Earlier this year Taylor attempted to purchase a hunting rifle and was told he was denied and had been put on an “indefinite wait.”
Taylor contacted the DOJ and explained he had purchased four guns in the past and there shouldn’t have been a problem. He said he was informed by a DOJ representative that his Ventura County arrest did not show a disposition, which could be causing the delay.
Fast-forward to May 2, 2014, just past 9 p.m. when Taylor and his 64-year-old wife, Pam, are in bed watching TV and are greeted by a pack of DOJ agents at their front door demanding his guns.
Taylor said the agents barged into his house and wouldn’t answer his questions regarding wanting his firearms, only telling him he was prohibited from ownership due to his 1973 conviction.
Taylor told the agent he had bought all the guns through legal channels and he was told they were sold by mistake.
“If it was one time, I could understand a mistake,” said Taylor. “But this was four separate occasions over a period of about 15 years.”
Taylor said he was handcuffed because he was told he was being “threatening.”
“There’s at least seven of them and I’m 67,” Taylor said. “How am I the one that’s ‘threatening’?”
Taylor said his wife was ordered to open their gun safe so the agents could retrieve the firearms.
“They wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” said Pam Taylor.
The agents left with the guns and only left a business card – no receipt, no other paperwork.
“I did everything right and I got treated like that,” Taylor said. “I’m hurt, mad, upset, this is just so wrong.”
Other Senior Raided
On May 12, Neal Dow, 67, and his wife Kathy, 65, were in their Modesto home on a very warm afternoon.
The Dows said multiple agents clad in “black SWAT gear” appeared at their door and asked about a registered handgun that Neal Dow owned. When the agents asked to examine the gun, Dow asked if the agents had a search warrant.
“They told us we could cooperate or if we didn’t, they would take us out of the house in handcuffs and sit us in the front yard for all our neighbors to see while we call a judge for a search warrant,” said Kathy Dow. “It was 98 degrees outside and we live in a nice neighborhood. I didn’t need that.”
Dow said the agents told him he had a felony conviction and couldn’t own firearms.
He disputed the conviction.
Dow said when he was 18 in 1965; he was accused of having sex with a 17-year-old girlfriend in Modesto and was arrested. To avoid lawyer fees he pleaded to a misdemeanor charge of statutory rape with a suspended jail sentence.
“They told us the code section they had on my rap sheet was for a felony,” Dow said. “When I later checked with the DA, they told me their records only showed an arrest and everything else was archived. He (DA rep.) said it would take up to eight weeks to locate anything from the court, if at all. I know it’s a misdemeanor.”
Dow said he bought the handgun in 2005 without any problems and has purchased others. The conviction has never come up until now.
In total the agents took 11 guns, many historic rifles that had been in his family, from his house that day.
“I feel this is a gun grab, taking guns from people who haven’t committed any crimes,” said Kathy Dow.
Not Just Criminal Violations
Many news sources have reported the 2013 ordeal of Southern California resident Lynette Phillips who checked herself in to an area hospital at the suggestion of her physician because of a bad physical reaction to some psychological medications she had been prescribed. Because she was held overnight, a hospital nurse had erroneously marked that the stay was “involuntary,” thus making her ineligible under the state’s law to possess guns.
Since her husband, a law-abiding citizen had guns registered to him, the DOJ’s APP unit came to their Upland home and seized firearms registered to him because she also lived at the residence.
After appeal, the guns were returned to the Phillips’s a few months later.
Unfortunately, Phillips didn’t return messages by press time seeking comment on their experience.
The move by the state has caused critics to question how gun owners are losing their Second Amendment rights without due process. In addition, HIPAA Laws are likely being compromised and the Fourth and Fifth Amendments are being violated in some of these cases.
California’s law has many wrestling that when it comes to firearms and mental health: How does a doctor or the government decide that someone is mentally ill enough to have this right revoked?
Governor Brown Beefs Up Program
Over the last few years, the California Department of Justice has amped up its effort to enforce APP.
Until 2012, California had just 33 agents to track down nearly 20,000 people on the APPs list.
In May 2013, California enacted a law authorizing DOJ to utilize funds for the enforcement of APP for hiring 36 additional agents from fees firearms purchasers must pay to the DOJ during the purchase of any firearm, known as Dealer Record of Sale, or DROS.
Critics claim the governor, under the guise of safety, got California gun owners who obey the state’s gun laws to cough up an additional $24 million to subsidize a platform that is increasingly used to confiscate guns from innocent residents on the wish of officials who desire to disarm the public.
Last year, the California State Assembly approved a bipartisan vote for a state audit on the DOJ’s APP program to determine accuracy of the reporting system – especially toward the mental health bans.
In November 2013, the California State Auditor released a report stating the APPS program was inaccurate, and unreliable, with not all courts and mental health facilities reporting accurate and proper information.
Portions of the obtained audit included, “Justice needs to improve its controls over processing the information it does receive from reporting entities, because key decisions, such as whether a person is prohibited, are left to staff whose work does not receive a supervisory review” and “…the information it uses to ensure public safety by confiscating firearms is incomplete.”
Another portion read, “Justice must improve its outreach to these entities and strengthen its management of the information it does receive to ensure it does all it can to protect the public…the system used to track and monitor those who are prohibited is severely flawed.”
Next week: The Department of Justice and Stanislaus District Attorney’s Office comment on the program.