EDITORIAL: Fresno court overlooks law

State auditor says it failed to report 661 who should have lost gun rights.

The Fresno BeeNovember 2, 2013 

The California Legislature has allocated $24 million to the Department of Justice to reduce its backlog of guns to be seized. More than 20,000 people had registered their guns, and then lost the right because they had committed a crime or were mentally ill.

AP

Courts are in the business of knowing the law. It is, therefore, surprising and unacceptable that courts have failed to fully report the number of individuals who are deemed mentally ill and should lose their gun rights.

We hope that the courts in Fresno, Kings, Madera, Mariposa and Tulare counties know the law now. They were among 29 counties in California that told the state auditor that they were unaware of the requirement, although it has been on the books for more than two decades.

In a report published Tuesday, the California Bureau of State Audits found that from 2010 to 2012, 34 courts in all failed to notify the state Department of Justice about at least 2,300 people who had been adjudged mentally ill and had no right to own guns.

Seven courts weren't sure how many individuals they had deemed mentally incompetent, so the 2,300 is almost certainly an underestimate.

Of that total, 661 were from Fresno County. Alameda County failed to report 963 individuals who shouldn't have guns. Mariposa County reported that two people should have lost their gun rights. Kings, Madera and Tulare counties were unable to determine their numbers.

Even in counties that did report, the effort was spotty. State auditors found that in Los Angeles County, court officials failed to report a number of instances to the state.

The Department of Justice, which is most directly responsible for seizing guns of people who have lost their gun ownership rights, has an obligation to make clear to courts this is their responsibility. The department apparently last sent a bulletin in 1991 -- a staggering fact in light of the link between mental illness and mass shootings.

The state auditor suggested that the Justice Department do regular outreach. It shouldn't be complicated. A letter to presiding judges in the various counties, or to the chief clerk or the Administrative Office of Courts ought to suffice.

The report is especially timely, given high-profile instances in which severely mentally ill individuals used guns to kill and maim. Assembly Members Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, and Allan Mansoor, R-Costa Mesa, requested the audit, and they deserve accolades.

Achadjian said in a statement the report "confirmed our worst fears -- that information about individuals who should be on the list of armed prohibited persons is not being fully reported."

The Legislature this year allocated $24 million to the Department of Justice to reduce its backlog of guns to be seized. More than 20,000 people had registered their guns and then lost the right because they had committed a crime or were mentally ill.

Perhaps the additional money will help. However, the audit does not instill great confidence. The Department of Justice should encourage local law enforcement agencies, which work closely with county courts, to take a greater role in the important gun program.

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