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CA backlog persists on illegal guns

This story appeared in Calmatters

Handguns on display at a gun shop in Fresno County on March 15, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

From CalMatters criminal justice reporter Nigel Duara:

California’s first-in-the-nation program to take guns away from people prohibited by courts from owning them continues to tread water: A backlog of cases numbering between 23,000 and 24,000 people has stubbornly persisted, even as Attorney General Rob Bonta insisted on Monday that the program is making progress. 

“That’s why we’re not taking our foot off the gas,” Bonta said at a press conference announcing the release of an annual report on the weapons seizure program. “While this report is a success story, there is still more work to do.”

The Armed and Prohibited Persons System did indeed take guns away from more people than were added to the database last year. But the work done by the Justice Department didn’t do much to cut into the backlog. The program, launched in 2006, is intended to take guns from people who have been convicted of a felony or violent misdemeanor or placed under a restraining order, or who suffer from severe mental illness.

  • On Jan. 1, 23,869 registered gun owners in California were prohibited from owning or possessing firearms. Last year at the same time, there were 24,509 armed and prohibited people. The year before that, the number was 23,598.
  • At least the backlog didn’t grow: More people were removed from the prohibited list than added in 2022 — barely. In 2022, 9,277 people were added to the database, while 9,917 people were removed. Total net for the year: 640 fewer people.
  • Law enforcement removed 54 “ghost” guns last year, a 575% increase since 2018, when they removed eight. 
  • Bonta: “This work is critical, this work is also dangerous. In a typical shift, our agents are out in the field. They’re knocking on doors. They’re recovering dangerous firearms from people who have no business having them and don’t necessarily want to voluntarily give them up.”

CalMatters’ 2021 three-part series Outgunned found that collaboration is scattershot between state and local criminal justice officials seeking to confiscate firearms, and judges have done little to ensure their orders requiring gun relinquishments are executed. 

One major issue is the system itself. The Justice Department notes that it is outdated and needs major upgrades, including the ability to say which cases have gone more than six months without the department opening an investigation. 

  • The Justice Department, in its report: “Gathering this information would require that a Crime Analyst review each individual APPS entry, one-by-one and review the notes in each file. Lacking a more efficient way of gathering this information, DOJ will be unable to provide these statistics until upgrades are made to the APPS database.”

One way to cut into the backlog would be to make the criminal justice system more agile in responding to people who already own guns and then end up on the prohibited list. Bonta said probation departments, courts and local law enforcement could work together to ensure people’s guns are removed the moment they’re convicted of a crime that would add them to the list. 

Bonta also called for a new system at the county level that would mandate the confiscation of firearms at the moment someone is served with a restraining order, another strategy to remove people from the list before they can be added to its backlog.

For the record: In Monday’s newsletter about Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposal to overhaul mental health funding, I should have made it clearer that the proposal would entail reallocating money from the Mental Health Services Act, as well as placing a new bond measure. Funding for the Mental Health Services Act is separate from the state’s general fund budget.

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1
Hochman announces LA D.A. bid

Nathan Hochman, candidate for California attorney general, answers questions from CalMatters reporters.p
Nathan Hochman, then a candidate for attorney general of California, is interviewed at the CalMatters offices in Sacramento on April 8, 2022. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters

A former political rival of Bonta’s also made some news on Monday. Nathan Hochman, who running as a Republican lost resoundingly to Bonta in the 2022 attorney general election, has his eyes on a new prize: Being the next Los Angeles district attorney.

Hochman, a former assistant U.S. attorney general under President George W. Bush and former federal prosecutor in California, has the endorsement of former Los Angeles D.A. Steve Cooley. During his announcement, Hochman criticized the current district attorney, George Gascón, for his crime policies.

  • Hochman, in a statement: “Gascón has miserably failed to protect our residents, leading to a spiral of lawlessness that endangers all L.A. County residents. It’s time to stop playing politics with people’s lives. It’s time we had a D.A. who fights for victims — not criminals. It’s time for an independent prosecutor who will protect public safety and ensure equal justice…”

Gascón is up for re-election in 2024. He has faced multiple failed recall attempts, and in March lost a retaliation lawsuit against a county prosecutor who claims they were demoted for speaking out against Gascón’s policies. (His former chief of staff is also suing him with similar claims).

Hochman is running as an independent in heavily Democratic L.A. County, and joins a crowded field in seeking this nonpartisan seat — three deputy district attorneys have already announced their bids and more candidates are expected to join.

2
A snowpack for the ages

Light snow falls as Sean de Guzman, right, Manager of the California Department of Water Resources Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit, left, Jordan Thoennes, Water Resources Engineer in Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit, and center, Jacob Kollen, Water Resources Engineer in Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit, conduct the measurement phase of the fourth media snow survey of the 2023 season at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Photo by Kenneth James/California Department of Water Resources

Light snow falls as California Department of Water Resources forecasters and engineers conduct the measurement phase of the fourth media snow survey of the 2023 season at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada on April 3, 2023. Photo by Kenneth James, California Department of Water Resources

From CalMatters’ water reporter Alastair Bland: 

It’s official: California’s snowpack has reached all-time levels.

Sierra Nevada snowpack on Monday rang in at 237% of average, tying 1952’s record, according to state scientists who conducted the latest snow survey at Phillips Station, south of Lake Tahoe. 

The data comes from an ensemble of 130 electronic sensors placed throughout the Sierra Nevada that, as of Monday, registered an average “snow water equivalent” of 61.1 inches. (That’s its height if you melted the snow to its liquid state.)

In the southern Sierra Nevada, the numbers are almost off the charts: The southern Sierra— which includes Mount Whitney, the range’s tallest peak — held 306% of its April 3 average snowpack, the most since recordkeeping began in 1950. From Lake Tahoe north, where the peaks are lower, it’s 194% of average.

Sierra Nevada communities are still digging out of snow that has caused roofs to collapse and blocked roads for weeks. Mammoth Pass recorded 104.5 inches of snow water equivalent, shattering all records for at least 90 years. The ski resort there announced it will stay open at least through July after receiving a record 704 inches — so far, with more on its way.

The snowpack is an important provider of water for California cities and farms in the summer and fall. But the downside is that officials warn that when the snow melts, it could cause major flooding in the Central Valley.

A year ago, snow was scarce in the alpine meadow at Phillips Station. During last April’s annual survey, its snowpack measured 38% of average. In 2015 it was just 4%, and then-Gov. Jerry Brown accompanied the team, standing on bare ground to measure nonexistent snow.

Even the wettest winters end, and while most of California is now either soggy or snowbound, this will soon change. Historically April 1 marks the end of the rainy season and the approximate date of peak snowpack.

This year’s snow is so deep that state officials say they are highly likely to conduct a May 1 snow survey, too, which is unusual.

“They were on a dry field last year on April 1, and now they’re sitting on 10, 12 feet of snow,” said David Rizzardo, a Department of Water Resources hydrologist.

Disaster aid: While recent storms helped produce the record snowpack, they also caused widespread damage. Monday night, Gov. Newsom announced that the White House has approved the state’s latest request for a federal major disaster declaration to speed recovery efforts.

The declaration covers damage from winds, flooding and mudslides starting Feb. 21 and makes federal aid available to affected individuals in Kern, Mariposa, Monterey, San Benito, Santa Cruz, Tulare and Tuolumne counties. The governor has proclaimed a state of emergency covering 47 counties.

  • Newsom, in a statement: “This declaration brings in more vital resources as we continue to work in lockstep with local, state and federal partners to support communities that have been turned upside down by these storms.”

3
Safer, more affordable menstrual products

A menstrual product dispenser on campus at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill on March 28, 2023. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters

A menstrual product dispenser on campus at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill on March 28, 2023. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters

In an effort to improve women’s healthcare, the bipartisan California Legislative Women’s Caucus included two bills in its 2023 priority package that aim to make menstrual products safer and more affordable. 

One bill, authored by Assemblymember Diane Papan, a Democrat from San Mateo, would ban the manufacturing, sale and distribution of menstrual products in California that contain perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Known as “forever chemicals,” these two substances can be toxic and Gov. Newsom signed a bill in October 2021 that outlaws the chemicals in food packaging. Thinx, makers of a popular menstrual underwear, settled a lawsuit in January after these substances were found in its products. 

Another bill, proposed by Sen. Caroline Menjivar, a Van Nuys Democrat, impacts recipients of CalWORKs, which offers low-income families and individuals cash assistance and employment services. Now, the money can go towards “necessary supportive services” such as childcare, diaper costs, office clothes and more. If the bill passes, menstrual products would be added to this list of supportive services starting April 1, 2025, and CalWORKs participants would be eligible to receive $20 a month to buy menstrual products.

  • Menjivar, in a statement: “Menstruating people should not miss work or be hindered from performing family duties because they cannot afford essential products. This bill can bring us one step closer to closing an equity gap, specifically within the CalWORKs program, while we continue to work for solutions to the numerous obstacles working families encounter.”

In another endeavor to make menstrual products more accessible, Itzel Luna of CalMatters’ College Journalism Network investigated how well universities across the state are complying with a new California law that requires campuses to have menstrual products available in at least one central location.

In the latest edition of “Ask CJN,” Itzel found that the availability of these products varied; some colleges had dispensers that were not working or needed to be restocked. Others fared better: A spokesperson from the San Diego Community College District, for example, said the district is “currently 90% complete in providing free menstrual products in every female and gender-neutral restroom on their campuses.”

A University of California representative told Itzel that all nine campuses are complying with the law, while California State University and the California Community Colleges said “they don’t ask campuses to report whether they’ve complied with the law.” Private colleges do not have to meet this requirement.

Have a question about California higher education? Fill out this form and it could be addressed in a future “Ask CJN.”

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