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What Is California Doing About Guns?

December 21, 2012 2:18 p.m.

Garen J. Wintemute, M.D., Director of the Violence Prevention Research Program, UC Davis

David Bejarano, Chief, Chula Vista Police Department

Steve Lindley, Chief, Bureau of Firearms, California Department of Justice

Related Story: What Is California Doing About Illegal Guns?

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: One of the main points the president made today was the need to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and those who have been diagnosed on mentally unstable. California has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation. But what happens when someone who has legally bought a gun falls afoul of these laws after they acquire it? The Department of Justice says it's seized more than 2,000 illegally guns this year because of a new online database which is called the armed prohibited persons system, or APPS. Our guests, Doctor Garen Wintemute on the phone, director of the violence prevention research program at the university of California Davis. And he help happened the Department of Justice set up this database. Thanks for joining us.

WINTEMUTE: Good afternoon.

ST. JOHN: In studio we have Chula Vista police chief David Bejarano, thanks so much for coming in.

BEJARANO: Good afternoon, thank you.

ST. JOHN: And also on the phone, the chief of the bureau of firearms in the California Department of Justice, Steve Lindley.

LINDLEY: Thank you.

ST. JOHN: A quick question to doctor Wintemute, how does this armed prohibited person system database work?

WINTEMUTE: The concept is really quite simple. We work very hard to prevent people who shouldn't have guns from buying them. We do background checks and so forth. That's gone all around the country. But except for programs like APS, which Steve can describe better than I can, there's almost nowhere in the country that takes a look at the reverse situation, and that situation is this: What happens when a person who has bought a gun legally is later convicted of a crime or served with a domestic violence restraining order or has an episode of serious mental illness and is no longer legally or from a simple public health point of view capable of possessing that firearm?

ST. JOHN: So it's like a database of all the people who subsequently are longer eligible to own those firearms. Steve, how does the Department of Justice use the database to get illegal guns off the street?

LINDLEY: Well, we partner with our local agencies, we provide the data to local agencies on a monthly basis as far as a group e-mail to secured mailboxes about the individuals in their respective jurisdictions that are prohibited. Local law enforcement can query our system anytime, day or night. And we send our agents out to partner with local agencies in sweeps or conduct the sweeps ourselves to identify individuals who are prohibited and then retrieve these firearms from them.

ST. JOHN: How many names do you currently have in the database?

LINDLEY: As of Monday morning, there was 19,880.

ST. JOHN: Whoa. And how many illegally GUNs? 2,000 you confiscated this year?

LINDLEY: This year, 2,033. Since the implementation of the program in July, July 1st of 2007, the department has confiscated over 10,000 firearms, and investigated over 9,000 prohibited individuals.

ST. JOHN: But the 19,000, are those ones that you have not addressed?

LINDLEY: Correct, that are in the system both for our agency and the local agencies to address.

ST. JOHN: We just have you for a few minutes here. So I wanted to ask you to talk about some specific examples of gun seizures this year that would not have been possible without the database.

LINDLEY: We had one in Fresno, there was an individual who was kind of terrorizing his neighborhood. The local agency was somewhat unable to address it because of the size of their agency, and some of the technical issues with him. So we were able to come in and through our prohibited persons system and our enforcement to remove that individual, take the guns away from him. He had a large arsenal, well over 100 firearms, a couple of hand grenade, and his house of booby trapped. So when we made entry, we had to do things very slowly. And one of the things that struck our agents as very unique, when they were bringing him out to the police car to take him to jail, the neighborhood came out and applauded the agents for the work because he has been terrorizing his neighborhood. So you look at that as, you know, some of these individuals are very, very dangerous and need to be addressed for not only the safety of all California but their respective neighborhoods.

ST. JOHN: Is it up to the local or your agents to do the confiscating? Who provides the data? How much cooperation have had from local law enforcement?

LINDLEY: Actually a lot. The laws here in California are numerous. So we provide training to local law enforcement agencies, we provide theidate Ahelp them conduct the sweeps in their jurisdictions. It's really up to the sheriff or the police chief in those particular areas to make that part of their normal enforcement efforts. And we always stand ready to assist them on a short-term or long-term basis on achieve these goals.

ST. JOHN: And just before you go, finally, what is the main hurdle to making this database actually effective in getting these guns out of the wrong hands?

LINDLEY: I think it is effective. There are a number of little things, obviously. There are more people who become prohibited through a variety of means per year than we're able to address. I think that says something about our society and so on. But additional agents, additional partnerships with the local agencies, and just bringing this to the attention of the community as a whole, California is very unique in the nation as we have a system like this. No place else in the nation has this. We're able to address things on a proactive basis, not a reactive basis, and that is a proactive way to make your community safer.

ST. JOHN: Steve Lynley, thanks so much for joining us,

LINDLEY: Thank you.

ST. JOHN: Chief Bejarano, you're on the ground here. And I guess the question is how effective is this in practice? Apparently the Department of Justice has trained? Local law enforcement to use this database. Do your officers use it at all?

BEJARANO: As Steve mentioned, it's a very important tool that we use here in the state. And we're the only state in the nation that has this database. That information is provided to all local agencies on a monthly basis. One of the challenges that we in local law enforcement will have is the lack of resources. That's not an excuse. It's an important tool, and it's important for us to look at how we can identify additional resources. Steve also mentioned the partnerships. We do a lot of joint investigations, a lot of joint sweeps with the Department of Justice. And this is another area where we need to partner more. At this point, are I believe most agencies in the state are using the system when they do come across either an individual in a traffic stop, conducting an investigation, doing the course and arrest. If the individual is in possession of a firearm, that is used as a reference database. That weapon is going to be retrieved either, but we need to refer to that particular list am

ST. JOHN: When you're arresting somebody and you have them under arrest, using the database might be very helpful. But it sounds like actually going after somebody who may have guns illegally is a much more dicey operation.

BEJARANO: Exactly. I believe the last sweep that occurred in our city, and we're the second largest city in San Diego County county, was about two or three years ago. It is labor intensive. We probably average 50 or 60 persons on that list. And during that sweep, and keep in mind, most of the time these individuals have multiple addresses. We normally don't find these individuals. During that sweep. R we did not come across any individuals with a firearm on that list. We made some other arrests related to weapons. But I believe it's time for us in local law enforcement to once again focus, and I believe an effective means would be to take a look at the individuals within our jurisdiction and prioritize the individuals with recent gun violence, mental illness, and in this database we also find out the type and number of weapons they have. So we need to prioritize and take a look at the individuals who may be in possession of an assault type rifle and be more proactive as far as working with other agencies, partnering more with the Department of Justice to focus on those individuals. Every weapon we remove from the street could lead to another life being saved, one less crime involving the use of a firearm.

ST. JOHN: Doctor Wintemute, you helped the Department of Justice set up the database. Did help them prioritize who they should focus their efforts on?

WINTEMUTE: I did. And you've heard some examples. Is this a prime example of smart law enforcement using good data. The priorities we set were first off go after people who have recently been prohibited, recently convicted or served with a restraining order. But then it could get really quite selective. Go specifically after people who've recently been convicted of a crime involving violence or firearms, or who have recently been subject to an emergency mental health hold because they've declared an intent to kill some other specific person or kill themselves.

ST. JOHN: You're saying recent because it's easier to enforce this.

WINTEMUTE: Well, actually, no, not because it's easier to enforce, but because right after a person has been convicted or something like that has happened is the time when they are at greatest risk.

ST. JOHN: Ah.

WINTEMUTE: I am much more interested in going after somebody who's0 been convicted of a felony in the last 6 months than I am going after somebody who was convicted of a felony 20 years ago and has been clean since.

ST. JOHN: Do you go with that, chief?

BEJARANO: Completely. That's an excellent point. And also if we focus on the individuals that are recently added on the list that full under the mental illness, the felony convictions, more than likely we're going to have current information, current addresses, and we'll probably have a lot better success tracking down these individuals than individuals who have been on the list for five or ten years. So the focus is on the individuals who appear on that list immediately, with the assault-type rifles, weapons, recent court orders, etc.

ST. JOHN: Doctor Wintemute, do you have any evidence that this database has been effective in preventing crime?

WINTEMUTE: We don't have outcome data. A related story is the fact that there's very little support available for research on firearm violence. We've have an evaluation project designed and ready to go. And we thought need funding to put it in play. Let me if I might give your listeners a sense of how important a problem this is.

ST. JOHN: Okay.

WINTEMUTE: We did do a study asking the question how common is it for someone who's bought a gun then to become prohibited from owning it here in California? And the answer is that over a five year period, after buying a gun, gun buyers who have no criminal record whatsoever, about 1% become prohibited persons, either because they have been convicted of a crime or served with a restraining order, etc. And for people who have any prior criminal record, whatever, a single conviction for petty theft, it's 5% over five years. Those percentages may sound relatively small, but we sold 600,000 guns in California in the last year for which we have data. And small percentages of large numbers of people are still large numbers of people. This is a big problem here.

ST. JOHN: Yes, although only 2,000 guns seized and 19,000 people on the list, and probably there are many people who should be on that list who aren't because I don't know whether there's problems with collecting that data as well. What needs to happen to make this program more effective?

WINTEMUTE: Yep. Steve mentioned it, and I will reiterate the point. I think the program operates well. It needs to be scaled up. As the chief just mentioned, there are always people coming onto and coming off the list. I know from having been involved in the conversations that law enforcement has needed to prioritize cases because they simply don't have enough officers and special agents to enforce this law completely. But again, take the big picture. This is the only state that enforces this law at all.

ST. JOHN: Ltrue, chief, in the big picture, is it lower hanging fruit to get guns out of the hands of people who have one and no longer qualify than it is to prevent people from no longer getting them in the first place?

BEJARANO: Well, I believe it was mentioned early on, are we have some of the stricter gun control laws. I believe we do a very good job as far as keeping them out of the individuals that shouldn't have a gun in the first place. This is an excellent database. These are the individuals that are most likely to commit another crime involving a firearm. And that's why we need to prioritize those individuals. And maybe at some point they illegally were able to posses a firearm, but because of that court order, mental illness, we have that information. It's a matter of prioritizing, being more creative and smarter to focus on those individuals and remove those weapons off the street.

ST. JOHN: Would you say that's perhaps more of a risk to the community than guns coming in from outside the state?

BEJARANO: Yes, I would agree with that.

ST. JOHN: You would. Okay. So the reading we did for this, it looks like there are some law enforcement agencies who find this database just one too many databases, as it were. They're already dealing with so much that they can't keep track of it. Do you think that's an issue?

BEJARANO: Yes, that's an issue. And you're also looking at the numbers. In the City of San Diego, there's probably 1,000 individuals if not more. So it's a matter of resources, prioritization as far as the focus by individual agencies. But again, it's a very important database. And in light of what happened in Utah and the tragedy there, it's got to be a common sense approach. We're doing well with the gun control issue. I believe we need to focus more in the mental health system there, school security, and taking advantage of current databases where we can remove these dangerous weapons. There's no reason why an individual with the court order felony conviction, mental illness should be in possession of of a weapon.

ST. JOHN: Is it true to say that California is the only state who has one of these databases?

WINTEMUTE: Yes, we're the only state even capable of setting it up. We have good, accurate, computerized criminal records. But also because for decades we have been keeping records of who purchases handguns and who registered -- who has a registered assault weapon. So the process is a prohibiting event occurs in a courtroom somewhere. A person who's convicted. That conviction is reported to the justice department here in Sacramento. And that person's name is run against the archived list of people who have purchased handguns or purchased assault weapons. If there's a match, the wheels turn. Of one of the gaps in the system as it exists now is that we do not have a similar archive for purchases of rifles and shotguns. That's going to start next month, that those records will be archived. It will obviously take years to build up a substantial database because only the new transactions get recorded.

ST. JOHN: Well, the president is calling for new, more responsible gun laws. But it sounds like we're having trouble enforcing the existing laws, chief. Is there anything more you can say about what you would need in order to be able to take these guns that are perhaps more of a threat than guns coming in from out of the state off the streets?

BEJARANO: Resource, anything that we could do, whether it's state funding, grant funding, federal funding. We do a lot on a regional bases, but if we can hopefully leverage all of our resources and do more of these sweeps of this type, I think we can be a lot more effective and really fully utilize this database. Overall on the national issue regarding gun control, I believe the path we need to continue is to prohibit the sale of these assault-type weapons and the large capacity magazine clips. Then we're looking at closing the loopholes involving the sales.

ST. JOHN: Are you glad this debate is back on the front burner?

BEJARANO: Without a doubt. I believe if we get to the areas we just talked about, we're going to have a safer community and be able to remove these dangerous weapons from dangerous people.

ST. JOHN: Good. I'd like to thank you both, our guests.

BEJARANO: Thank you.

ST. JOHN: And Doctor Garen Wintemute, with the violence prevention research, who helped set up this database with the California Department of Justice. Thank you for joining us.

WINTEMUTE: Thanks for having me.