Tempting fate

Gaps in a system intended to keep guns out of the wrong hands have led to tragedies around the state and country



The Santa Maria Police Department has been tight-lipped when it comes to divulging who owned the pistol they allege Lee Isaak Bedwell Leeds used to kill his father and three other local men on March 18.

It may seem just one small detail amid such a large tragedy, but six years ago Leeds pleaded no contest to a charge of battery and was ordered by the judge to obtain mental treatment and stay at least 500 feet away from a local pastor. That misdemeanor and the order prohibited him from owning a gun.

Granted, there are lots of ways someone can obtain a firearm, but again, details in the Leeds case have been less than forthcoming.

The absence of public details regarding the suspected murder weapon and Leeds' past underscores a larger issue. The California Department of Justice generates a list of registered gun owners who are known to be insane, violent, or have some sort of criminal past, who therefore are prohibited from keeping the weapons.

So was Leeds on that list? Did he even own a gun? That information isn't readily available--at least to the average citizen. The Department of Justice list is available only to law-enforcement agencies. It's free they just have to ask for it.

The Santa Maria Police Department, however, doesn't subscribe to the list.

The San Luis Obispo Police Department does, but has no plan to disarm anyone who is on it, according to Capt. Dan Blanke. He believes officers would have a tough time convincing a judge of probable cause to issue search warrants.

The big picture

The Department of Justice Armed and Prohibited Persons System (APPS) lists 129 registered gun owners in Santa Barbara County who are known criminals, mentally unstable, or under restraining orders for threatening violence. There are 110 such gun owners in San Luis Obispo County, and 2,697 in Los Angeles County.

What could go down here? Consider what happened in February in Baldwin Park, near Los Angeles, where authorities allege a 28-year-old resident fatally shot his mother, then killed the woman next door, as well as her 4-year-old daughter, and critically wounded two other children. He had twice been detained as potentially dangerous under California Welfare and Institutions code 5150 and confined for psychiatric evaluation. The Department of Justice was notified and added his name to the bulletins, according to an L.A. County Sheriff's Department homicide detective investigating the case. The Baldwin Park police have subscribed to the APPS listing since June, according to the Department of Justice, but no one confiscated the weapons.

"I don't know where the information went. As far as I can tell, we got no e-mail [from APPS]," reported Lt. Joseph Cowan, head of detectives for the Baldwin Park Police Department.

More holes than shield

Officers in jurisdictions that don't subscribe to the database lack a quick way to check when they're dispatched to a residence whether they will confront someone who is likely armed and insane or criminal.

Regardless whether the local police choose to receive and heed the APPS warnings or not, civilians remain in the dark. Someone somewhere around here lives next door to a certified lunatic with an arsenal. In contrast, the public has access to online state DOJ records to immediately pinpoint the addresses, names, photographs, and criminal histories of sex offenders.

Of all the states, California has the most comprehensive laws to prevent criminals and the disturbed from possessing firearms--measures that are much more stringent than federal standards, especially regarding mental competence. Anyone who has been admitted by a hospital as a potential danger to themselves or others under the state's 5150 code may not own a gun in California for five years.

Federal law bars anyone from having a gun whom a court has committed to a mental institution or judged mentally defective, but that law doesn't extend to individuals who have been held for observation without a court order, including those detained under the 5150 provisions, which allow hospitals to confine people up to three days. Flawed screening, enforcement, and communication have led to disasters, despite the added layer of protection on the books to shield Californians from deranged gunmen.

All states rely on the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) to identify criminals, the mentally ill, and other ineligible persons when they attempt to buy guns from legitimate firearms dealers, who must be federally licensed. The dealers in most states give customer background information directly to the FBI for screening. If the ensuing automated NICS review finds no reason to deny a sale (the computerized check usually takes less than 30 seconds) the purchase is approved, and the dealer can release the gun after three days. A few states, including California, serve as their own dealer point of contact for background investigations and augment the NICS check by searching their own lists of people forbidden to purchase guns. California imposes a 10-day waiting period in order to comb backgrounds before approving sales.

Although federal law bans purchases and possession by anyone a court decides is mentally ill, the federal government can't compel states to supply those court records. According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, 18 states as of November had provided the FBI no information whatsoever about adjudicated mental cases among the 32 states that had surrendered any names and other identification, seven had sent three or fewer records. NICS has been operating since 1998.

"In the fall, essentially with the flick of a switch, the California Department of Justice forwarded over 200,000 mental health records to the federal background check system," said Colin Weaver, the state legislation coordinator for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington, DC. "Previously, they were uploading almost zero [mental health] records to the national system."

The floodgate opened in response to the murder of 32 people at Virginia Tech last April by a student. In the wake of the shootings, accounts of glitches in state-to-federal mental health reporting protocols surfaced, leading national media outlets to question how the shooter was cleared to buy the pistols he wielded in the massacre.

Weaknesses in federal reporting criteria possibly cost seven, perhaps eight lives in Goleta two years ago, when a postal employee who was dismissed in 2004 returned to her workplace and opened fire after killing a former neighbor. The rampage ended with her suicide. According to media reports at the time, she had been involuntarily placed on a 72-hour 5150 hold after police removed her from the job for bizarre behavior. Consequently, she was prohibited from buying a gun in the state, but not in New Mexico where she later became a resident and bought the murder weapon. New Mexico had no idea she had been involuntarily restrained for psychiatric attention, and California had no idea she had a gun until she used it.

Flooding the system

Four years after funding became available to begin development of the system and compile the initial database, the APPS notification service went online. That was January of 2007.

"Let me tell you the scope of this issue," said Investigations Commander Ken Conway of the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Department. "As of May 15 of 2007, there were 6,463 armed-and-prohibited persons in the system, with over 10,000 handguns and 851 weapons that could be considered assault weapons, for a total firearms number of 10,924 [statewide]."

Furthermore, the California DOJ projected that more than 9,500 new prohibited persons would be added to the APPS list annually. According to a DOJ publication, the number of cases the department anticipated handling on its own annually ran to 2,550, leaving a projected 7,110 to be worked by local law enforcement agencies each year.

"It's wonderful to have laws," Commander Conway pointed out, "but the person power is normally the problem."

He explained that his department isn't taking any enforcement action, but is relying on the Department of Justice for enforcement.

"We are not contacting anyone on the list," he said.

Overall, there appears to be confusion about who has the responsibility and the authority to confiscate the thousands of weapons from the thousands of identified deranged, criminal, and known violent people who possess them illegally.

Some remedies are pending

President George W. Bush this year signed legislation to encourage states to upload mental health judgments to NICS by providing federal compensation, but funds have not yet been allocated. California Assemblyman Paul Krekorian (D-43rd District) has introduced AB 2696, a bill that would require the state to regularly update the NICS. Moreover, the bill would require mental health facilities to electronically report the admission of people who are detained under 5150 as of July 2011.

Above it all, one thing is sure: Police and sheriff's departments throughout the state will need far more resources to make headway confiscating the weapons on the list.

Contact Editor Ed Connolly at [email protected].

Add a comment