Under California's Armed and Prohibited Persons System, state agents check databases of gun owners against those of people forbidden to own guns because they are, allegedly, "felons, individuals with history of violence (domestic violence/restraining order) or severe mental illness, wanted persons." An armed team then proceeds to the address of record for the prohibited person in question to ask, oh so nicely, of course, for any weapons to be surrendered. Questions over the validity of California's categories of "prohibited persons" aside, you might ask yourself what happens if the state's databases are in the usual, somewhat moth-eaten and incompetently maintained condition that tends to beset government toys? What happens to poor bastards who show up in there quite mistakenly—as happened when a goon squad descended on the home of Michael Merritt, over a marijuana possession charge from 1970?
Reports Carol Ferguson at BakersfieldNow.com:
Merritt said that was the night of Nov. 5. Several agents arrived at his door and started asking questions about which guns he owned.
"I thought, he's here to get my guns for some reason," Merritt described. "He says, 'You have a felony here from 1970.' I said, 'A felony? A pot possession charge from 1970.'"
The gun owner said the officers showed him a print-out of the charge. It lists the offense under a code of 11910, from a Los Angeles community. Merritt said he remembers the incident from more than 40 years ago, and he doesn't think the charge is on the books now.
"Doesn't exist anymore," Merritt argued. "I mean, it's a ticket now days."
Eyewitness News checked the penal code, and 11910 doesn't show up.
Merritt also disputed whether the charge was ever a felony.
"I truly, honestly don't remember pleading guilty to any felony," he said. "The jail time was like five weekends."
He remembered getting probation and a fine of about $100.
APPS agents aren't allowed to enter homes on their own say so, but they can play the usual law-enforcement trick if you tell them to go pound sand: threaten to come back later and really jack you up.
"We told them to leave the house and go get a warrant, and they said that's fine," wife Karla Merritt said.
"But, when we get the warrant and we come back, you're going to jail," agents reportedly told the couple.
Michael Merritt said he had to get to work, so they let the agents take the guns.
As it turns out, agents called Merritt a few days later to admit they'd made a mistake and to say they were returning his guns. The charge had, in fact, been a misdemeanor. But it had been entered incorrectly in the system.
Because it would have been totally cool to threaten him and steal his guns over a 44-year-old marijuana possession charge if it had really been a felony.
It's nice—commendable really—that agents bothered to dig through the records after the fact, and then actually admitted their mistake. You have to wonder if that's because the poor quality of the records isn't exactly a revelation to officials, and this is not an unexpected outcome.
But how many screw-ups do they miss? Or just not admit?
And how many people "legitimately" get their guns grabbed because a politician arbitrarily decided that some relatively innocent act (pot possession?) should be classified a felony, and those people got caught doing it back before sideburns were ironic?
Then there's mental illness. Does that really belong on the list? Only about 4.3 percent of people with a "severe" mental illness are likely to commit any sort of violence, according to a University of Chicago study. But among the Californians who have had their guns grabbed is a woman, Lynette Phillips, who suffers from anxiety disorder.
This year, California started registering all gun owners and the guns they buy. As I've written, the ways in which government officials misuse and abuse gun registration records is an excellent incentive to ignore the law and keep your guns unregistered. Michael Merritt might agree.
See Reason TV's video, below, on the truth about mental illness and guns.