Agents to miss deadline to seize illegally owned guns under groundbreaking California program

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SACRAMENTO, California — The state Department of Justice will miss its deadline to end a backlog in a program unique to California that seizes guns from people who are prohibited from having them, officials said Thursday.

State lawmakers gave the department $24 million in 2013 after officials said the money would let them act within three years to take the guns from nearly 20,000 people who are not allowed to have them. They approved the funds as they considered dozens of gun control measures after a series of mass shootings including the Newtown, Connecticut, school massacre.

But Stephen Lindley, who heads the department's Bureau of Firearms, told lawmakers during a Senate budget subcommittee hearing that he has had trouble hiring and retaining enough agents to do the work. The department is overseen by Attorney General Kamala Harris, a Democrat who is running for the U.S. Senate next year.

At the current rate the problem will continue one or two years past next year's deadline, when the money runs out, he said.

The program bars gun ownership by people who purchased firearms legally but were subsequently convicted of a felony or a violent misdemeanor, became subject to a domestic violence restraining order or were determined to be mentally unstable. Agents cross-match five databases to identify people who bought guns but are no longer allowed to own them.

The backlog is now about 16,300 gun owners, but Lindley said it would have climbed to about 28,000 without the extra money, in part because of a surge in gun purchases in recent years.

State senators said they are frustrated that the department has already spent 40 percent of the $24 million, yet most of the agents hired to seize the weapons moved on to other permanent jobs within the department within months after they were hired.

"I think there's concern in the legislature that we need to do better," said Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, the subcommittee's chairwoman.

Lindley blamed the temporary nature of the jobs, prompting lawmakers to say they will look for permanent funding for the program or require the department to permanently shift money to the program from other areas. Hancock also said she will introduce legislation forcing the department to provide a reimbursement when agents leave the firearms bureau within a year after they are hired.

Sen. Joel Anderson, R-Alpine, said the department could reduce the backlog by sending letters to gun owners whose names were added to the list years ago but who may no longer be prohibited from ownership.

Lindley promised to provide lawmakers with recommended changes in 30 days.

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