One By One, California Agents Track Down Illegally Owned Guns California is currently the only state with a program to confiscate guns from residents prohibited from owning firearms. To find them, agents comb through a database of people who legally owned a gun until mental illness or a brush with the law rendered them no longer eligible for gun ownership.

One By One, California Agents Track Down Illegally Owned Guns

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In California, officials are ramping up a unique program that identifies and seizes guns from people who are prohibited from keeping them. Under state law, a legally registered gun owner loses the right to own a firearm when convicted of a crime or becoming mentally ill. Last year state agents seized nearly 2,000 firearms.

As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, this is painstaking work.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: One minute out.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Making a right turn on Parker Street.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: We're riding in a caravan of four unmarked trucks through the bedroom communities of the San Francisco East Bay. The trucks carry nine state agents wearing bulletproof vests and armed with forty caliber Glock pistols and tasers. They'll spend the next six hours looking for illegal guns.

KISU YO: Tonight, on the operational plan, we have 11 locations.

GONZALES: That's Special Agent Kisu Yo. His team will visit the homes of 11 people who are considered Armed and Prohibited Persons, people on the so-called APPs list. Yo says they are all people who at one time purchased firearms legally but have since run afoul of the law.

YO: Such as maybe a felony conviction, mental health commitment, they received a restraining order, domestic violence restraining order, some type of a misdemeanor conviction that prohibits them from possessing firearms.

GONZALES: Beginning in 2007, California officials began collecting names from court records, medical facilities, lists of known or wanted criminals, and then cross-referenced them against the federal instant criminal background check system for gun-buyers. The list is updated every day. California is the only state in the country that identifies people who are prohibited from having a gun and then sends agents out to knock on their door.

At the house of one convicted felon in the suburb of San Leandro, agents didn't find the man they were looking for. Still, since he's on probation, the agents had the right to search his house.

YO: All right. So this guy is a convicted felon. He had, or he has, two guns in his name. We found one of the guns that's listed in his name, a revolver.

GONZALES: But since they can't find the second gun, two agents are dispatched to the felon's workplace to question him. This is tedious, expensive and time-consuming work, requiring hours of background checks and cross-referencing even before the agents hit the streets. California Department of Justice spokeswoman Michelle Gregory.

MICHELLE GREGORY: There's a lot of work that goes into these. People aren't always home, there's different stories as to where the firearms may be and there's a lot of follow-up that needs to happen after. So there's still going to be a lot of work even after they come out to these homes trying to confiscate these weapons.

GONZALES: The NRA initially supported this program, but it's since become disenchanted.

CHUCK MICHEL: This program is being billed as something that it's not.

GONZALES: Chuck Michel is a civil rights attorney whose clients include the NRA and the California Rifle and Pistol Association Foundation.

MICHEL: It's being billed as going after dangerous people, and for the most part, with some exceptions, admittedly, it's not going after dangerous people. It's not making society any safer.

GONZALES: Michel's main problem is that in many cases the state doesn't tell people they're prohibited from owning a firearm.

MICHEL: For example, you can get in a fight and plead guilty to being in a fight and wind up having a statutory prohibition on possessing firearms get triggered for a 10-year period. But the courts haven't told them that.

GONZALES: Yet despite that criticism, the program is expanding. Until recently, California had just 33 agents to track down nearly 20,000 people on the APPs list. But thanks to a bill signed into law this spring by Governor Jerry Brown, the state is spending $24 million to hire an additional 36 agents.

YO: I know it's a semi-automatic handgun that was a revolver.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: There's one pistol (unintelligible)...

YO: Yeah, we can't get to it, yeah.

GONZALES: Back on the street, the state agents are regrouping in a shopping mall parking lot. On a good night, they say, they might seize 30 guns. But this time they've confiscated only eight firearms, including an assault weapon, and taken two men with outstanding warrants into custody. Still, agent Kisu Yo appears satisfied.

YO: Overall it was a very successful night. No one got hurt, and we did get - definitely did get some guns off the streets tonight. You know, if you get one gun off the street, it's a win.

GONZALES: Thus far, no other state has adopted California's gun seizure law. However, there is a bill in Congress to provide funds for other states to follow this model. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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