SACRAMENTO—Gun registration had always seemed like the "line in the sand" — a proposal that would so offend the nation's gun-rights advocates that they would bring out their full political muscle to stop it. Yet a California law mandating government record-keeping for all new long-gun purchases goes into effect on Jan. 1 and few people even seem to know about it.
This year, gun owners were relieved that Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the toughest gun-control measures that came to his desk, including one that would have banned sales of almost all semi-automatic rifles. But back in 2011, after much debate, the governor signed the registration law, AB 809, with a 2014 start date. It's far broader than any of the bills the governor dealt with in the last session.
Supporters claim it's not exactly registration, in that the law calls for the state to retain background-check records of those who purchase guns and does not register specific guns to specific people. Opponents say that's just semantics. The main element of registration is that the government can track legal gun owners. In this case the department will have a list of every owner and the specific guns each person buys. The state already tracks the purchases of handguns and "assault weapons."
The new law will bolster a program that has generated much controversy. Earlier this month, legislators held hearings on the effectiveness of the Armed Prohibited Persons System, used to confiscate the firearms of California residents who are no longer eligible to own them. The California Department of Justice relies on the current ownership lists to identify gun owners and cross check those with lists of people who have been convicted of crimes or have been involuntarily committed for mental issues.
The state auditor found, in a report released in October, that the department has not sufficiently notified courts and mental-health officials of their reporting requirements. Despite a new $24-million state appropriation, the auditor found that the program has failed to take guns from nearly 21,000 Californians who have forfeited their gun rights.
Some Republican legislators have been complaining about this failure, even though a better system would lead to additional gun confiscations.
The current mental-health, criminal and gun databases are already riddled with errors, according to Chuck Michel, a California-based civil-rights attorney who represents gun-rights organizations, "It (the new long-gun system) is likely to be just as error-ridden as these other databases," he said. Some people complain that the Department of Justice is not giving gun retailers, who are responsible for submitting the information to the state, much guidance.
These problems can lead to the mistaken confiscations of guns from people who shouldn't be on the list. "(W)e found that some key staff decisions, such as determining that a specific individual is not an armed prohibited person, are not subject to supervisory review once staff complete training," the auditor reported. "In fact, three of eight such decisions we reviewed were incorrect."
Gun Owners of California reported recently that the system is anywhere from 40 percent to 60 percent incorrect. Others put the percentage lower, but it's still high. In many cases, the department doesn't reinstate the gun rights of people who are allowed to once again own them, said the group's executive director, Sam Paredes. A vastly expanded ownership list will lead to more mistakes.
The new law also expands the infrastructure for confiscation for other reasons (i.e., after specific types of guns are banned). This is not an unfounded worry. In the 1990s, the state used registration lists to demand that many law-abiding assault-weapons owners relinquish their guns. "Registration has led to confiscation in California," Michel said. "Registration is leading to confiscation in New York right now."
Gun-ownership lists raise other fears. Police have lobbied for long-gun registration as a means to promote the safety of police officers by letting them know whether someone may be armed when police go to a house to make an arrest. But civil libertarians worry that police officers may overreact if they gain such information, which can be a big problem given the number of Californians who own shotguns for home defense and rifles for hunting and target practice. (The Department of Justice confirmed that local police agencies have access to these lists.)
"My research into more than a dozen raids that turned out badly is that … the presence of a firearm wires officers into a much higher tendency to shoot," said Joseph McNamara, the former San Jose police chief and a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. "(T)he presence of a legally possessed firearm bought to protect the home may get totally innocent people killed by the police who casually use SWAT for drug search warrants especially if they register."
Statistics from Canada, which required long-gun registration before abandoning it, find that only a tiny portion (around 4 percent) of such guns used in homicides are registered to those who commit the crimes. So police officials who use ownership lists to "protect" themselves will be gaining a false sense of security given the unlikelihood of criminals to use properly reported guns.
Gun-rights supporters have just introduced an initiative that would include gun rights specifically in the state constitution. The measure would forbid registration, but it's unclear whether backers can gain sufficient resources to wage a statewide campaign. An ongoing federal case could arguably affect California's system, also.
Meanwhile, state Sen. Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, recently announced his plans to introduce a ban on so-called "ghost guns" (untraceable guns made by three-dimensional printers) unless they are pre-registered with the state. This surely will be the first of many new gun-control measures that will be introduced when the Legislature reconvenes next month. But if gun-rights groups couldn't stop the new long-gun record system, it's hard to imagine they have any more lines to draw.