California's Gun Repo Men Have a Nerve-Racking Job

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On the evening of March 5, nine agents from the California Department of Justice, wearing bulletproof vests and carrying Glock pistols, assembled outside a ranch-style house in a Los Angeles suburb. They were preparing to confiscate weapons from a gun owner who’d recently lost the right to possess firearms after spending two days in a psychiatric hospital. They knocked on the door and asked to come in. These touchy encounters sometimes end in anger and, occasionally, handcuffs. This time, the agents came out peacefully with three guns. Then it was on to the next stop on the list for that night.

California is the only state that takes legally obtained weapons away from citizens who are no longer supposed to have them. There are almost 20,000 such gun owners, state records show, including convicted felons, people under domestic violence restraining orders, or those deemed mentally unstable. “What do we do about the guns that are already in the hands of persons who, by law, are considered too dangerous to possess them?” California Attorney General Kamala Harris wrote to Vice President Biden after the shootings in Newtown, Conn. She recommended that Biden, heading a White House review of gun policy, look to California as a model.

Nationwide, as many as 200,000 people have lost their gun rights but keep their weapons, says Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California at Davis. Many states lack the ability to confiscate firearms because they don’t track purchases as closely as California, which requires most sales to go through a licensed dealer and be reported. “Very, very few states have an archive of firearm owners like we have,” says Wintemute, who helped set up the program.

California’s been going after guns since 2007. Last year agents seized about 2,000 weapons, 117,000 rounds of ammunition, and 11,000 high-capacity magazines, according to state data. The list of those no longer eligible to keep weapons is compiled by matching files on almost 1 million gun owners with databases of new criminal records and involuntary mental health commitments. About 15 to 20 names are added each day, the attorney general’s office says.

Showing up at people’s homes and demanding their guns is about as fun as it sounds. A felony conviction or restraining order is flagged as a “disqualifying event” in California’s database, but it isn’t sufficient evidence to obtain a search warrant, says John Marsh, a supervising agent who coordinates the seizures. So the agents—there are 33 statewide—often must talk their way into a residence to look for weapons. “We’re not contacting anybody who can legally own a gun,” says Marsh, who never knows what to expect when he approaches someone’s door. “I got called the antichrist the other day. Every conspiracy theory you’ve heard of, take that times 10.”

During the March 5 outing, the agents visited a home in Fontana, in San Bernardino County. They were looking for a gun owner with a criminal record for running a prostitution business, according to the attorney general’s office. Marsh says that while the woman appeared to be home, she didn’t come to the door. Without a warrant, the team left empty-handed.

They had better luck at the ranch house in nearby Upland, where they seized the three guns from the home of a woman who’d been hospitalized for mental illness. One gun was registered to her, two to her husband. “The prohibited person can’t have access to a firearm,” regardless of who the registered owner is, says Michelle Gregory, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office.

Although violating gun ownership laws is a felony, the agents don’t usually arrest people whose weapons they confiscate unless they’re convicted felons, who are prohibited from buying, receiving, owning, or possessing a firearm, Gregory says. The program has met little resistance from gun groups, which have pressed state and federal lawmakers to enforce existing gun control laws instead of writing new ones. “We think that crime control instead of gun control is absolutely the way to go,” says Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California. His only complaint is how the law is funded. On March 7, California’s senate voted to expand the seizure program using $24 million from fees that gun dealers charge buyers for background checks. “This program has a benefit to the entire public,” Paredes says, “and therefore the entire public should be paying.”

The bottom line: In 2012, California seized 2,000 guns and 117,000 rounds of ammunition from people who’d lost their right to own firearms.

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