Armed Prohibited

Honea adds, “just because a person is on the list, doesn’t mean we can go right out there, go inside their house and take their guns.”

One Bad APPL 

The Armed Prohibited Person’s List has been all over the news lately and it doesn’t sound like a big list of winners. It sounds like a list of bad guys with guns. Who are these people? How many are in Butte County? Should we be afraid, stocking up on ammunition, and forming a mob? Who’s supposed to be disarming these guys and why aren’t they doing it, on the double? Those who find themselves on this list are prohibited from posessing firearms. But there aren’t always resources to enforce the prohibition. Take the case of Roy Perez of Baldwin Park, who in 2008 shot his mother 16 times and then went next door, killing a neighbor and the neighbor’s 4-year-old child. Perez, on the list for violent and erratic behavior and multiple 72-hour psychiatric holds, had never had his gun confiscated. He is now serving a life sentence in prison.

In 2012, Senate Bill 819 was passed and the Department of Justice began releasing a monthly list to local law enforcement agencies called the Armed Prohibited Person’s List. APPL, as it’s known, is a list of people who have legally purchased firearms but, for any number of reasons, are no longer allowed to own them. As of February 1st, 2013 there are 170 Armed Prohibited persons listed as living in Butte County and 269 weapons associated with those people. Specifically, 268 handguns and 1 assault weapon; rifles and shotguns are not currently tracked under California law.

Prior to the 2012 legislation, the Department of Justice tracked people who were convicted of felonies or misdemeanors which carried firearms prohibitions, or those who were taken into custody pursuant to a 5150 (The Welfare & Institutions Code) because they were a danger to themselves or others due to a mental health issue, or they became a restrained person (restraining order), or the firearm prohibition was a condition of probation. The new legislation mandates that the DOJ cross-reference the database of prohibited persons with the list of persons who, at some point prior to their prohibition, purchased handguns or assault weapons. Thus creating the Armed Prohibited Persons List.

I sat down with Sheriff Jerry Smith and Undersheriff Kory Honea to learn more about these bad guys with guns in our county:

Do you actively work the list to retrieve these firearms?

Honea provides some background, “Beginning in 2007, the Butte County Sheriff’s office was part of a pilot project, along with the San Mateo County Sheriff’s office, and that pilot project gave those two entities grant funding to participate in a program called the Firearms Domestic Violence Education & Intervention Program. In essence, what that program allowed us to do was fund two deputy sheriffs who were notified when someone was either the subject of a domestic violence restraining order or suffered a conviction of domestic violence that resulted in them being a prohibited person. And then these deputies would work to either 1) bring the person into compliance with the law by informing them that ‘hey, you have to lawfully dispose of this firearm and we need to tell you how to do that.’ Or 2) if they refused to do that, work to establish enough evidence to allow us to obtain search warrants, go in and search for the weapons and if we found them then we could seize them and request those people be prosecuted accordingly. So we had that program in place for 2 years. In 2009 the program ended and as a result we lost funding for that program.”

“It’s interesting,” says Sheriff Smith, “if I might add, how that funding came to be. It was a result of a lawsuit that was settled, and the defendant in that lawsuit was the Wal-Mart company. They actually were fined a large sum of money and that money went to the Department of Justice to fund that project.”

Between 2009 and 2012, before Bill 819 was implemented, a detective was assigned the ancillary responsibility of dealing with this issue. Unfortunately, it was virtually impossible for a single detective to work the list full-time and fulfill his other job responsibilities.

When Bill 819 passed in 2012, the Sheriff’s department began receiving monthly updates to the list. Today, they cross-reference the list with open investigations to see if the names on the list match names involved in other cases. Those on the list not associated with an open case are then contacted by the Sheriff’s department in an effort to bring them into compliance with the law. Those names are assigned to the STARS (Sheriff’s Team of Active Retired Seniors) volunteer unit, who then attempt to make telephone contact with the people on the list. STARS volunteers are not responsible for collecting guns, only for making phone calls to ask the listee to comply with the law. Those that do not respond and verify that they’ve come into compliance are then referred back to the detective, and according to Honea, “as we have the resources to do it, then we will work those cases up.” But as we all know, law enforcement resources are spread awfully thin these days throughout California.

Honea adds, “just because a person is on the list, doesn’t mean we can go right out there, go inside their house and take their guns.” The Sheriff’s office must verify that the person is truly on the list, their address is correct, and the weapons are still in their possession.

Can you get off the list?

Some of the prohibitions are limited in duration; it might not necessarily be a lifetime sentence. If a restraining order expires or the listee goes to court and litigates their felony down to a misdemeanor and then has it expunged, they are removed from the list. Basically you either time-out or you can try to litigate your way off the list.

Why aren’t firearms just surrendered or collected at the time of conviction?

Logistically, it’s not always possible to collect the firearm at the time of arrest. The legal reason for this is traced back to the 1994 case, People v. Beck, in which it was determined that the defendant, not the state, had the right to designate disposition of the titles of their firearms in the event that the defendant became prohibited. Once someone has been convicted they first have the right to dispose of the firearm in a method that they choose. Grandad’s old blunderbuss? They can sell it to a non-prohibited family member instead of surrendering it, as long as they can show proper proof and documentation of the sale.

Working the list is resource-intensive, time-consuming and complicated. Is it scary to imagine that we have these criminal elements armed and living in our community? Are we overstating the role that mental illness plays when it comes to gun violence? A study from UC Davis concludes that “among legal purchasers of handguns, the incidence of new felonious and violent criminal activity resulting in ineligibility to possess firearms is low for those with no prior criminal history but is substantially higher for those with a prior criminal record and is affected by demographic characteristics.” In other words, if you’re already a criminal, you’re more likely to continue your crime spree. If you’re not and you’ve passed your background check, the possibility of committing a crime is slimmer. Comforting?

And while everyone agrees that firearms should not be in the hands of irresponsible, violent or mentally ill offenders, the Sheriff has issued a further statement about gun control in general, in the wake of the Newtown tragedy:

“I am a strong supporter of the 2nd Amendment and as Sheriff of Butte County took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States. As such, I support the rights of mentally stable, law abiding citizens to possess firearms. Our focus at the Butte County Sheriff’s Office has been, and will continue to be, on keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and mentally unstable individuals. Responsible gun ownership is not the problem. Irresponsible gun ownership is the nexus to the tragedies we have seen.

“The State of California already has in place a comprehensive body of law intended to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and mentally unstable individuals. California already requires background checks to be performed on any individual purchasing a gun, and a waiting period already exists. There has been a magazine capacity ban in effect since the 1990’s and assault rifles are already highly regulated in California. Accordingly, I do not believe additional regulation is warranted in California.

“When it comes to keeping our children safe, I would like to see funding made available to local law enforcement agencies so they can hire officers to be assigned to school campuses. Additionally, we need to improve our systems that identify and treat people with mental health issues. And finally, we need the resources necessary to hold criminals who use firearms accountable.”

I asked Sheriff Smith, a “strong supporter of the 2nd amendment” and a member of the NRA, if he’s happy with the NRA response to proposed gun control legislation. He hesitated for a moment and replied, “I am happy with the NRA response.”

I then asked what he thought about NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre flip-flopping on the issue of universal background checks. In 1999 LaPierre stated on behalf of the NRA that he “believed it was reasonable to provide mandatory instant criminal background checks for every sale at every gun show, no loopholes, anywhere for anyone.” Fast forward to the present, LaPierre doesn’t believe that “law-abiding people want every gun sale in the country to be under the thumb of the federal government.” Smith responded, “I think that’s ridiculous. I think it’s ridiculous for me as a private citizen, to have the opportunity to sell to somebody who is mentally ill or otherwise prohibited. I should be penalized severely for that.” He goes on to say, “Not doing background checks, in my mind, is just ridiculous…You have to have some measure with which you can qualify…I am for closing the gun show loophole.”

So, do you need an assault weapon to hunt? To kill a squirrel? Sheriff Smith says, “No, but people still want the option to purchase one.”

Americans want what they want, right? We want assault weapons, Big Gulps and pot. Honea laughs, “Yeah, the hallmarks of freedom.”

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