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Sonoma County implementing new state law on gun ownership by criminals

Gun ownership has been illegal for those convicted of felonies and misdemeanor domestic violence charges for decades, but until Jan. 1, when new rules took effect, the state relied on the good faith of criminals to relinquish their firearms.

District attorneys, superior court judges and probation departments are now required to identify, inquire and investigate gun ownership of those convicted in California courts under the 2016 ballot measure Proposition 63 passed by voters but only implemented this year.

People convicted of all felonies and any one of 40 misdemeanors within the past 10 years must now hand their guns and ammunition over to local police or prove they’ve transferred ownership to someone allowed to own them.

In 2014, more than 7,700 gun owners were added to the state list of people prohibited from possessing firearms, and of those, more than 3,200 people - 42 percent - never gave up their weapons, according to Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office.

“Historically it has been challenge to recover weapons from people prohibited from possessing them,” said Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch. “Whether or not this will be successful is anyone’s guess.”

It has long been a felony for a person not allowed to own guns and ammo to be found with them. The threat of arrest and a possible stint behind bars have been the main deterrents. Under the new law, that largely remains the same.

The difference is, people convicted of crimes that take away their right to gun ownership must answer to a judge as to whether or not they have guns and ammo in their possession.

Sonoma County Public Defender Kathleen Pozzi believes the new oversight could bring up some tricky constitutional problems. The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states people have the right not to incriminate themselves, which in some cases would happen if a convicted felon admitted to the court being in possession of a firearm.

“The courts have agreed on this. They can’t ask ‘Do you have a firearm?’” Pozzi said. “They can only say, “If you have a firearm here’s how you dispose of it.’”

Other elements of Proposition 63 include a requirement that businesses and individuals who sell ammunition obtain a state license annually, also starting Jan. 1.

Beginning January 2019, California ammo dealers must run a state background check on all customers, since those prohibited from owning guns are not allowed to possess ammunition.

Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Shelly Averill sent a memorandum to other judges on the court Dec. 21, outlining how changes in the law would be implemented.

The District Attorney’s Office will now identify to the court those whose crimes prohibit them from owning weapons. Upon conviction, the judge will provide a form to the person convicted of a qualifying crime inquiring about guns in their possession while also directing the probation department to investigate.

That multiple-page form asks for place of birth and citizenship status - among other questions - but Pozzi has said judges in Sonoma County and most other jurisdictions in California won’t require people to answer about immigration status.

“I do not care if you were born in Santa Rosa, you don’t have to answer those questions,” Pozzi said.

A person owning guns and ammo must prove to the court in a signed affidavit that both have been turned over to law enforcement, sold to a licensed dealer or had ownership transferred to someone legally allowed to own them.

If they are not in custody they have five days to comply and 14 days if in custody. A person who fails to comply receives a $100 citation, Pozzi said.

Whether or not a person claims to have a firearm, a probation officer will conduct an investigation to determine if the defendant had a weapon at the time of the crime. The officers will also search the California database of registered firearms for the person’s name.

If probable cause is found that a person does have a weapon, a search warrant will be sought with the help of the district attorney.

The probation department will be tasked with the heavy lifting of implementing the new law, which is expected to be time intensive and cost the department more money, but it’s too early to estimate a price tag, said David Koch, Sonoma County Chief Probation Officer.

“There is a workload associated with the new law and we’re not sure what it amounts to yet,” Koch said. “It’s all pretty new and a lot remains to be seen.”

You can reach Staff Writer Nick Rahaim at 707-521-5203 or nick.rahaim@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nrahaim.

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