A uniquely California program investigated a record number of people who no longer are allowed to own firearms, yet the underlying backlog remains nearly the same as a year ago, state Attorney General Xavier Becerra said Friday.
He blamed an increase in gun possessions and too few special agents, despite an infusion of $24 million in recent years, and said his office may always have a problem clearing cases unless agents get raises that bring their salaries more in line with other law enforcement agencies.
“We are using every gear to move this program,” he said. “We don’t have enough gears to keep pace with the number of people that are added to the (prohibited) list.”
The only-in-California Armed and Prohibited Person System, known as APPS, cross-matches five databases to find people who legally purchased weapons but are now banned from ownership because they have been convicted of felonies or have a history of domestic violence or mental illness.
State and local authorities then can move to seize the weapons under the program, which began in 2006.
Agents finally cleared all but about 500 cases from a backlog of nearly 21,000 in 2013. The $24 million given to the state justice department in 2013 was supposed to be enough to eliminate the backlog within three years.
But despite clearing a record 10,681 cases last year, the department still has about 9,400 active cases now, about 800 fewer than it did a year ago.
“More cases are coming in than our 50 agents can process, and so if we don’t do something … we will continue to see an incremental rise in the number of cases that we haven’t touched,” Becerra said. “No one wants that.”
The number has increased particularly since rifles and shotguns were added in 2014 to a program that previously targeted handgun owners. Becerra said at least 10,000 cases will likely be added to the program each year, roughly the same number that agents are clearing annually.
Gov. Gavin Newsom is proposing to increase the program’s funding yet again, adding $5.6 million because of the increased workload for a total of nearly $17 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
That extra money would be enough to hire 20 additional agents, yet Becerra said his department will continue having problems recruiting and retaining agents for the program unless their salaries are substantially increased.
A special agent’s starting salary is 44 percent below the statewide average for entry level law enforcement positions, he said, but he could not say what it would cost to bring their salaries closer to the level paid to highway patrol officers, correctional officers and local law enforcement officers.
Republican lawmakers have long criticized Democrat Becerra and his predecessor, Kamala Harris — a U.S. senator now running for president — for not ending the backlog nor spending all the money they were given, mostly because of difficulties in hiring and retaining enough special agents.
“Maybe the Attorney General should focus a little less on fights with the federal government and a lot more on his job as California’s top law enforcement officer,” Assembly Republican Leader Marie Waldron of Escondido said in a statement.
Sen. Jim Nielsen, a Republican from Gerber, was more charitable after he and Democratic Sen. Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles met with Becerra on Thursday. She heads the Senate budget committee while he is vice chairman.
“We gave them almost a blank check, and it didn’t get done. They didn’t tell us they were going to have problems hiring,” Nielsen said.
But he praised Becerra’s call for closer cooperation with local law enforcement agencies.
Aside from higher wages, Becerra also called for modernizing the department’s data system and doing more to seize weapons as soon as individuals are convicted, given domestic violence restraining orders or adjudicated mentally ill. Speedier seizures are one goal of a 2016 voter-approved initiative sought by Newsom, but Becerra said it’s too soon to see results.
“I’m glad he’s finally focused that this has got to be a sustained, long-term, high priority within the attorney general’s office,” Nielsen said.