domingo, 6 de febrero de 2011

A Struggle to Disarm People Without Gun Rights


By law, Roy Perez should not have had a gun three years ago when he shot his mother 16 times in their home in Baldwin Park, Calif., killing her, and then went next door and killed a woman and her 4-year-old daughter.  Mr. Perez, who pleaded guilty to three counts of murder and was sentenced last year to life in prison, had a history of mental health issues. As a result, even though in 2004 he legally bought the 9-millimeter Glock 26 handgun he used, at the time of the shootings his name was in a statewide law enforcement database as someone whose gun should be taken away, according to the authorities.

The case highlights a serious vulnerability when it comes to keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally unstable and others, not just in California but across the country.

In the wake of the Tucson shootings, much attention has been paid to various categories of people who are legally barred from buying handguns — those who have been “adjudicated as a mental defective,” have felony convictions, have committed domestic violence misdemeanors and so on. The focus has almost entirely been on gaps in the federal background check system that is supposed to deny guns to these prohibited buyers.

There is, however, another major blind spot in the system.

Tens of thousands of gun owners, like Mr. Perez, bought their weapons legally but under the law should no longer have them because of subsequent mental health or criminal issues. In Mr. Perez’s case, he had been held involuntarily by the authorities several times for psychiatric evaluation, which in California bars a person from possessing a gun for five years.

Policing these prohibitions is difficult, however, in most states. The authorities usually have to stumble upon the weapon in, say, a traffic stop or some other encounter, and run the person’s name through various record checks.

California is unique in the country, gun control advocates say, because of its computerized database, the Armed Prohibited Persons System. It was created, in part, to enable law enforcement officials to handle the issue pre-emptively, actively identifying people who legally bought handguns, or registered assault weapons, but are now prohibited from having them.

The list had 18,374 names on it as of the beginning of this month — 15 to 20 are added a day — swamping law enforcement’s ability to keep up. Some police departments admitted that they had not even tried.

The people currently in the database are believed to be in possession of 34,101 handguns and 1,590 assault weapons, said Steven Lindley, acting chief of the firearms bureau in the state’s Department of Justice. He estimated that 30 percent to 35 percent of the people on the list were there for mental health reasons.

Despite the enforcement challenges, the state’s database offers a window into how extensive the problem is likely to be across the country. Concrete figures on the scope of the issue are difficult to come by because no other state matches gun purchase records after the fact with criminal and mental health files as California does.

“There are 18,000 people on California’s list,” said Dr. Garen J. Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, who helped law enforcement officials set up the system and is working on a proposal to evaluate its effectiveness. “So we can roughly extrapolate there are 180,000 such people across the country, just based on differences across populations.”

By way of context, Dr. Wintemute said that in 2009 only about 150,000 people were prevented from buying a gun because they failed background checks, out of about 10.8 million who applied.

Only a handful of states, however, even have the ability to keep track of handgun purchases the way California does, by either requiring a license or permit to own one or simply keeping records of such purchases. Even fewer require a license or permit for other types of firearms.

California’s system came about through a 2002 law that was even supported by the National Rifle Association, in part because it was billed as a way to protect members of law enforcement. It finally got under way in earnest in 2007. But though gun control advocates consider it a model, it still has serious gaps.