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New Program Aids in Seizure of Illegal Guns

Two dozen owners have been arrested and the rate is expected to grow as database is expanded to target 'the worst of the worst.'

November 19, 2002|William Overend | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — In a drive to take guns away from convicted felons, spouse abusers and others banned from possessing them, state law enforcement agents have seized about 200 weapons and arrested two dozen gun violators in recent months.

They predict that the arrest and seizure statistics will increase dramatically in coming years as technology is improved and information is instantly fed to police agencies statewide.

The new program, which has been in effect since July, was created by a state law that authorized construction of a database that will cross-reference the names of gun owners against records tracking court convictions, restraining orders and individuals ruled to be dangerous to themselves or others.

The information will allow investigators to zero in on about 170,000 Californians who illegally possess guns. Officials estimate that the database will cost at least $4 million to establish.

A key element is checking gun purchase applications that have been rejected by the state because the applicants are banned by law from possessing guns.

Previous legal gun purchases by the rejected applicants are also cross-checked. In about 1% of the checks, investigators discover that the applicants had purchased guns legally prior to their convictions. On that basis, warrants to seize the weapons can be obtained when necessary.

The program differs dramatically from previous practices in which there were no checks or follow-up action on rejected gun applicants.

"About 1,000 guns are purchased every day in California, and about 10 people are rejected after record checks," said Hallye Jordan, spokeswoman for the state attorney general's office.

Other groups also are under scrutiny, she said. Those include Californians with permits to carry concealed weapons, security guards, law enforcement officials, gun dealers and registered owners of assault rifles.

The program, Jordan said, ultimately will target "the worst of the worst" of those who illegally possess weapons. She estimated that 17,000 violators will be added to the database each year.

"At some point, a database will marry all gun records with offenders and that will be available at the push of a button to patrol officers," Jordan said. "But that will take some time."

Randy Rossi, director of the firearms division of the state Department of Justice, said much of the information about prohibited gun ownership comes from the 2,000 gun dealers in the state and records regulating assault weapons.

"More than 40% of the people we have gone after so far have domestic violence backgrounds," Rossi said. "We have been averaging about 10 firearms per case. Also seizing hundreds of rounds of ammunition."

When declaring October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month in California, Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer also emphasized the importance of getting guns away from those with a history of violence toward family members.

"This first-in-the-nation program targets lawbreakers who pose an immediate threat ... because they are armed and dangerous," Lockyer said.

The Department of Justice has two five-agent teams assigned to the program and expects to have a third by the end of the year. When going after suspects, they work closely with local police agencies, who make the actual arrests.

Officials track rejections of handgun applications at gun shows as well as stores. But they must usually wait for a tip from a concerned spouse or relative.

"One immediate goal for us is to increase the awareness of local law enforcement agencies about this, and we have done some outreach to accomplish that," Jordan said.

Rossi added that a crucial concern is officer safety. "This can be lifesaving information," he said.

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