State Senate OKs money for gun-seizure program

State Senate OKs money for gun-seizure program »Play Video
State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, urged lawmakers to approve his measure authorizing more money for a California program that seizes guns from people who are prohibited from having them, at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, March 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Legislation approved Thursday by the state Senate would send more money to a program unique to California that seizes guns from people who are prohibited from having them, a number that has risen to nearly 20,000.

The bill authorizes $24 million for the state Department of Justice's Armed and Prohibited Persons program, which is the only one of its kind in the nation. It prohibits gun ownership for people convicted of a felony or a violent misdemeanor, who are subject to a domestic violence restraining order or who are determined to be mentally unstable.

The department has confiscated more than 10,000 weapons under the program since 2006 but has a backlog of nearly 20,000 people because it has too few agents to go after the weapons. Those individuals own about 39,000 handguns and 1,600 assault weapons, said Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, the author of SB140.

The additional money would come from a surplus in fees paid for firearms purchases. It would let the department hire six supervisors, 30 special agents and support staff to create six new teams to seize the weapons.

They use a computerized system that cross-matches five databases to identify people who bought guns but are not allowed to own them.

It's the first bill to be considered by the Legislature from among the dozens of gun control measures introduced after recent mass shootings, particularly the Newtown, Conn., school massacre.

"Knowing that there are 40,000 weapons out there today, if there were to be — heaven forbid — anything approaching the Newtown tragedy here in California by one of these 19,000-plus individuals, and we were sitting on $25 million, doing nothing with it because we were squabbling over this little point or this little point, I don't know how any of us would sleep at night," Leno said. "We have a chance to get those weapons now. The money's there."

The Senate passed the emergency legislation 31-0, with support from eight Republicans. The bill would take effect immediately if it is approved by the Assembly and signed by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.

Despite the bipartisan vote, some Republican lawmakers objected that the money should come from general taxes instead of the $19 fee on firearms purchases or transfers. The surplus shows that the fee should be reduced, said Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Roseville.

Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, criticized the Department of Justice for not already spending the surplus to seize illegally held weapons, although Leno noted that the Legislature took $11.5 million from that fund to help close a budget deficit. The large surplus has accumulated in recent years only because so many people are buying weapons in anticipation of tighter gun controls, he said.

Nielsen abstained from voting on the bill, but Gaines and Sen. Joel Anderson, R-La Mesa, were among eight Republicans voting for it.

"This is not an easy decision for me," said Anderson, who supports gun-owners' rights but co-authored Leno's bill. "I'm making the best choice I can to protect my Second Amendment rights, but most importantly, to protect Californians. I can't sit idly by and allow 6-year-olds to be shot."

State Attorney General Kamala Harris has been promoting California's program as a model for national efforts to keep guns away from those who shouldn't have them.

Last month, Rep. Mike Thompson, a Democrat from St. Helena, introduced HR848 to create a U.S. Department of Justice grant program for states that want to develop programs similar to California's. The program cross-checks five computerized databases to find people who bought guns but are not permitted to own them.

Harris said she is not concerned that groups advocating for gun-owner rights could use the seizure program to stoke fears that California is confiscating firearms.

"They'd have to be desperate to make that kind of argument, which would be absolutely fallacious because the reality is this is not about taking the guns out of the hands of anyone other than people who are legally prohibited from owning or possessing guns, and in particular people who have been convicted of a felony or found by a court to be mentally ill," the attorney general said in a telephone interview.

She noted that the National Rifle Association supported the bipartisan bill in 2002 that created California's Armed and Prohibited Persons program.