Every year California’s Attorney General puts out a report on its Armed and Prohibited Persons System. And every year reporters write news stories saying the system is struggling and some record number of people are in the database. But in all the coverage, CalMatters reporter Robert Lewis never saw any information on who was actually on the list — and certainly not any satisfying answers as to why the system is struggling. So he decided to see if he could find people in the system and try to understand why California is having so much trouble getting registered guns from people the state knows have guns and also knows shouldn’t have guns. His central thesis: If California couldn’t get this right, there was little hope of tackling the more concerning and opaque issues of illegal firearm trafficking and ghost guns.
That reporting also revealed the state is failing to disarm domestic abusers.
In the course of reporting, Lewis learned that the state DOJ prepares a monthly report for local law enforcement agencies showing whom in their jurisdiction is in the database. He submitted Public Records Act requests to 400 local law enforcement agencies across the state seeking copies of the most recent monthly reports. Four agencies provided him with some basic information. Using information in those records he was able to pull court files and locate other sources. He also tracked the responses from the other 396 agencies to see the reasons for denial, which became a part of the story. About 150 agencies didn’t just deny his request — they indicated they had no idea what he was talking about. This became critical to the story as it revealed many local agencies had abdicated responsibility for seizing these guns to the state and weren’t doing even the most basic work to help clear the backlog.
Lewis also sought historical context — garnering hundreds of pages of legislative history records from the state archives. And he reported on how local courts were failing to enforce their orders requiring individuals to surrender firearms —requesting information from all 58 county superior courts about background check procedures in family court proceedings.
For the second story in the series, he used thousands of pages of court records and transcripts to tell the story of Calley Garay, a Madera County woman who was killed by her husband. He also identified hundreds of domestic violence cases in other counties and looked through those files online and in courthouses around the state.
Tracking 400 public records requests was a difficult task. He also fought to get records from some courts, both because of the ongoing pandemic and also because some clerks are amazingly unfamiliar with the basic presumption that court records are open to the public. He had to appeal the decision of one superior court to withhold records — “politely” threatening litigation while citing various statutes and rules of court — before they would release the records.