Courts and State DOJ Let Thousands of Mentally Ill Californians Carry Guns

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

California has a law on the books aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of mentally ill people, but the law is difficult to enforce if law enforcement folks don’t know who those people are.

A recent report by the California State Auditor surveyed 34 courts that failed to give law enforcement authorities the names of at least 2,300 people between 2010 and 2012 who should be on a firearm prevention list because of rulings related to mental illness. Several courts told the auditor they had insufficient information to even tell how many reportable determinations of mental illness they failed to report.

Other courts filed sporadically, partially or late. In fact, the auditor noted that many courts had their own interpretation of what the law meant when it required “immediate” reporting of a mentally ill finding. They should get a break on that account, as the law was changed this year, effective January 1, to extend the reporting deadline. The auditor said that was a bad idea, considering the lousy job they already do, and recommended a 24-hour reporting rule be reinstated.

The report found that the courts were often unaware of the reporting requirements and laid the blame on California’s Department of Justice (DOJ) for doing a poor job of asking for the information. The auditor identified 22 mental health facilities that Justice should have contacted about reporting requirements, but weren’t on the department’s outreach list.

Only five of the 34 courts surveyed were aware of the reporting requirements. Beyond those 34, the auditor also checked in on three other courts and found them lacking. The Los Angeles Superior Court reported on only 12 of the 27 mental health determinations it made and San Bernardino Superior Court’s criminal division failed to report any of the 15 determinations of mental incompetence to stand trial. Santa Clara Superior Court reported nine of 15 cases.

That lack of notification could be moot, however, because DOJ doesn’t have the staff or money to track down the people already on their lists. They also don’t have the personnel to properly review the lists for determination of who should be on them. “In fact, three of eight such decisions we reviewed were incorrect, and the lack of supervisory review may have contributed to these incorrect decisions,” the audit said.

Mental health findings by a court can include rulings on the competency of an individual to stand trial and determinations if he is a danger to others. These people join a much longer list of individuals who the state knows shouldn’t have guns but are still registered to do so. The DOJ told lawmakers in January that 20,000 registered gun owners in possession of 39,000 handguns and 1,600 assault weapons have convictions for felonies, domestic violence or drugs, or mental health conditions that prevent them, by law, from being armed.

The department has been maintaining the Armed Prohibited Persons System (APPS) since November 2006. Many of the people in the database had weapons before they became involved with the legal system. Almost one-third of the people on the list have a criminal record, 30% have mental issues, 20% have a restraining order out against them and 18% are wanted by the authorities.

Governor Jerry Brown signed a law in May to spend $24 million on additional support for tracking down and confiscating their weapons. But, as the auditor pointed out, the DOJ relies heavily on the courts for information on these so-called “armed prohibited persons.”

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

State Auditor: Names of Mentally Ill Barred from Owning Guns Not Reported (by Jessica Calefati, San Jose Mercury News)

Audit Slams California for Not Identifying Mentally Ill with Guns (by Jim Miller, Sacramento Bee)

State Not Doing Enough to Keep Guns from Mentally Ill, Audit Says (by Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times)

Armed Persons with Mental Illnesses (California State Auditor) (pdf)

State Considers Taking Shot at Disarming Thousands Who Own Guns Illegally (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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