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Calif. highlights states’ struggles to keep guns away from unstable

By Ed Connolly
New York Times / February 6, 2011

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NEW YORK — 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.

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 9mm 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 mentally unstable people 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, such as Perez, bought their weapons legally but under the law should no longer have them because of subsequent mental health or criminal issues.

In Perez’s case, he had been held involuntarily by the authorities 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 preemptively.

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.

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.

Perhaps most important, the burden for confiscating weapons falls largely on local jurisdictions, most of which are too short on resources to do much. Some may also have been only dimly aware of how the list works.

It appears, however, that in the case of Perez, the Baldwin Park police were not checking the list at all in 2008, when the shootings occurred, in part because of confusion over how to access the database.

“Nobody knew where the e-mail was or where it was going,’’ said Lieutenant Joseph Cowan, head of detectives for the Baldwin Park Police Department.

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