State law, enacted in 2001, mandated that the California Department of Justice (Justice) create a database to match information related to persons in the State who are prohibited from owning or possessing a firearm (prohibited persons) with its records of firearm owners to determine whether these individuals are prohibited from owning their firearms.2 Justice implemented this database, commonly known as the Armed Prohibited Persons System (APPS database), in November 2006. The purpose of this database is to cross-reference all persons in California who are firearm owners and who are unlawfully in possession of a firearm because of a qualifying event in their life that prohibits them from owning a firearm (prohibiting event). Justice refers to these individuals as armed prohibited persons.
As we described in our October 2013 report, although different qualifying events can cause someone to become prohibited from owning a firearm, the scope of this audit is limited to prohibitions related to mental health.3 Because of the variety of prohibiting events, different entities throughout the State are required to report to Justice when a prohibiting event occurs. Mental health facilities are generally responsible for reporting prohibiting events related to mental health status. Superior courts are generally responsible for reporting events related to criminal proceedings, but they are also required to report information to Justice related to determinations concerning an individual’s mental health. Additionally, state law requires local law enforcement to report to Justice any time a licensed psychotherapist reports that a patient has made a threat against an individual.
Process of Reporting Mental Health Firearm Prohibiting Events to Justice and Identifying Prohibited Persons
The Armed and Prohibited Persons unit (APPS unit) within Justice’s Bureau of Firearms (bureau) is responsible for identifying armed persons with mental illness from a daily list of individuals who may meet the criteria. As of May 2015 the APPS unit employed eight staff, one quality control staff, and a manager. As Figure 1 below shows, Justice has an automated process that it runs each night, which matches the records in the Mental Health Firearms Prohibition System (mental health database) and the criminal history system with information in Justice’s CFIS, which contains records of firearm owners in California since 1996 and of assault weapon owners since 1989. Specifically, Justice’s automated process compares personal identifying information within the two systems, such as Social Security numbers, to identify individuals who own a firearm and who may have had a mental health prohibiting event logged into one of the two databases within the last 24 hours. All persons identified through this automated check are placed in a pending daily queue for APPS unit staff to review.
The Process of Reporting Mental Health Firearm Prohibiting Events to the California Department of Justice and Identifying Armed Prohibited Persons
Sources: Information provided by Justice’s Bureau of Firearms and the Bureau of Criminal Information and Analysis.
Note: As described in the Background, local law enforcement agencies report whenever a licensed psychotherapist reports that a patient has made a threat against an individual. These reports are submitted manually and electronically through the Mental Health Reporting System. According to the manager of the mental health unit, Justice only expects to receive 500 of the reports submitted by local law enforcement agencies during 2015 compared to thousands of reports submitted by the courts and mental health facilities.
Staff in the APPS unit manually review each person in the pending daily and historical queues to determine whether the automated check has matched the correct individual. The APPS database matches prohibiting events with firearm owners, and then Justice’s APPS unit staff review these matches and determine whether the individual is actually prohibited from possessing a firearm. Matches remain in the daily queue until an analyst completes an initial review of the match. For example, the automated check will match an individual with a recent prohibiting event with someone in CFIS who has the same personal identification number, such as a California driver’s license number, but a different name and date of birth. Justice has implemented a manual review of these potentially prohibited persons so it does not incorrectly label firearm owners as prohibited persons by an automated process. In addition to verifying identity, staff also verify that the event that pulled the individual from the criminal history system or the mental health database is actually a prohibiting event. When staff determine that someone is a prohibited person, they identify that individual as prohibited in the APPS database and update his or her information, including address and firearm ownership information. In addition, the historical queue is a backlog of individuals who have not yet been reviewed for prohibiting events since Justice implemented the APPS database in November 2006.
The APPS database identifies individuals who own firearms and whether they have a prohibition. State law specifically requires Justice to search its firearm records to determine whether the individual has had a prohibiting event. State law does not direct Justice to, nor is Justice attempting to, identify for purposes of the APPS database individuals who have prohibiting events, are unarmed, and are living at the same residence as firearm owners. Effective January 1, 2014, state law specifies that when firearm owners know or have reason to know that they reside with a prohibited person, they may not keep a firearm at the residence unless the firearm is maintained under specific conditions that state law prescribes, such as within a locked container. A violation of these requirements is a misdemeanor. According to the assistant bureau chief, the Justice agents that conduct firearm seizures will investigate whether any other firearms owners reside in the residence during their investigations. Further, the APPS unit is not responsible for background checks for firearm purchases. Another bureau unit, the Dealers’ Record of Sale processing unit, is responsible for completing these background checks.
Scope and Methodology
This follow-up audit focused on certain recommendations we made to Justice in our October 2013 report related to the accurate and timely identification of prohibited persons as well as its process for reaching out to courts and mental health facilities.
|1||To ensure that it makes correct determinations about whether an individual is an armed prohibited person, by January 31, 2014, the California Department of Justice (Justice) should implement quality control procedures over Armed and Prohibited Persons unit (APPS unit) staff determinations. These procedures should include periodic supervisory review of staff determinations to ensure that staff decisions correctly identify all armed prohibited persons.||
|2||To ensure that timely information is available for its efforts to identify armed prohibited persons and confiscate their firearms, Justice should manage staff priorities to meet both its statutory deadline for firearms background checks and its internal deadline for initially reviewing potential prohibited persons. Justice should report annually to the Legislature about the backlog of unreviewed potential prohibited persons and what factors have prohibited it from efficiently reviewing these persons.||
|3||To ensure that potential armed prohibited person cases do not wait too long for their first review by the APPS unit, by December 31, 2013, Justice should revise its goal for the daily queue to a more challenging level of no more than a maximum of 400 to 600 cases. Justice should monitor its performance against this goal and manage staff priorities as needed to meet it.||
|4||To ensure that it meets its goal of eliminating the historical backlog of reviewing firearms owners by the end of 2016, Justice should manage its staff resources to continually address the backlog, and should notify the Legislature if it believes that it will not be able to fully process this backlog by its goal date. To help guide this effort, Justice should establish benchmarks that will indicate whether it is on track to meet its goal.||
|5||To ensure that it has the necessary information to identify armed prohibited persons with mental illness, Justice should coordinate with the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) at least once a year to share information about superior court (court) reporting levels and to determine the need to distribute additional information to courts about reporting requirements. In coordinating with the AOC about potential underreporting, at a minimum, Justice should consider trends in the number of reports each court sends and the number of reports that it might expect to receive from a court given the court’s size, location, and reporting history. Whenever Justice identifies a court that it determines may not be reporting all required information, it should request that the court forward all required case information.||
|6||To ensure that it keeps an accurate and up-to-date list of all mental health facilities that are required to report individuals with mental illness, at least twice a year Justice should update its outreach list of mental health facilities by obtaining a list of facilities from the California Department of Health Care Services (Health Care Services).||
|7||As soon as it identifies mental health facilities that have not yet received information about reporting requirements and the online reporting system, Justice should send these facilities the related information.||
|8||To ensure that it continues to receive information from facilities that currently report individuals with mental illness and that should continue to report such individuals, by January 31, 2014, and at least twice a year thereafter, Justice should implement a review of the number of reports it receives from individual mental health facilities. These reviews should focus on identifying any significant drops in a facility’s reporting levels and include follow up with facilities that may require additional assistance in reporting.||
Sources: Recommendations made in the report by the California State Auditor titled Armed Persons With Mental Illness: Insufficient Outreach From the Department of Justice and Poor Reporting From Superior Courts Limit the Identification of Armed Persons With Mental Illness, Report 2013‑103 (October 2013), and information and documentation identified in the table column titled Method.
Assessment of Data Reliability
In performing this audit, we relied on electronic data extracted from Justice’s APPS database and mental health database. The U.S. Government Accountability Office, whose standards we are statutorily required to follow, requires us to assess the sufficiency and appropriateness of computer-processed information that we use to support our findings, conclusions, or recommendations. Consistent with our previous audit issued in October 2013, we did not perform accuracy and completeness testing of these data because the source documents required for this testing are stored by various entities, such as mental health facilities, courts, or firearm retailers located throughout the State, making such testing cost-prohibitive. Consequently, we found the data from the APPS and mental health databases were of undetermined reliability for the purposes of identifying the daily backlog, forecasting Justice’s completion of the historical backlog, and identifying trends in court and mental health facility reporting. Although these determinations may affect the precision of the numbers we present, there is sufficient evidence in total to support our audit findings, conclusions, and recommendations.
2 State law directs Justice to identify persons who have ownership or possession of a firearm, as indicated by a record in Justice’s Consolidated Firearms Information System (CFIS). CFIS contains records of firearm owners from information that Justice receives from sales and subsequent transfers of firearms as well as registered owners of assault weapons. Thus, we use the term firearm owners throughout the report to describe these individuals. Go back to text
3 Armed Persons With Mental Illness: Insufficient Outreach From the Department of Justice and Poor Reporting From Superior Courts Limit the Identification of Armed Persons With Mental Illness, Report 2013-103 (October 2013). Go back to text
Back to top