Other states would be urged to emulate California's system for seizing firearms from people who are no longer legally allowed to own them, under a bill unveiled Wednesday by two Bay Area House members.
But California's program is predicated on registration of certain firearms -- something most states don't do and are loath to consider.
The bill by Rep. Mike Thompson and Rep. Jackie Speier would create a Justice Department grant program offering money to states to develop systems to ensure convicts and dangerously mentally ill people can't keep their guns, such as California's Armed Prohibited Persons System (APPS) database.
The database lets California law enforcement match new criminal convictions and mental health incidents with the state's lists of handgun and assault-weapon owners, so police can identify and seize firearms from those prohibited by law from having them. But it works because California keeps lists of handgun and assault-weapon owners; most other states don't.
The proposal is among dozens of gun-related bills now circulating in Congress. Because of its focus on criminals, it may have a better chance than many others, including the renewed federal assault weapons ban -- introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. -- on which a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing was held Wednesday despite widespread expectations that it lacks enough votes to pass.
Thompson -- who chaired House Democrats' gun violence task force, with Speier among the vice chairs -- acknowledged Wednesday that getting most other states to adopt a registration system like California's would be difficult if not impossible.
But "states don't have to do what California does — they could come up with their own creative idea," he said.
He cited Iowa's system, in which judges advise new convicts that they must turn over whatever firearms they own. Law enforcement sifts through secondary sources -- criminal history, testimony and so on -- for evidence of ownership, and any failure to comply with the judge's order results in a warrant being issued for contempt of court.
That's more time-consuming and less efficient than California's system, in which there's already a list of known gun owners at the state's disposal. But Thompson, D-Napa, said his bill at least would goad states to do more to identify criminals or dangerously mentally ill people with guns, without any impact on law-abiding gun owners' rights.
He noted that the National Rifle Association's California branch supported the bipartisan bill -- authored by then-state Senate Republican Leader Jim Brulte, now widely expected to be the state GOP's next chairman, and sponsored by state Attorney General Bill Lockyer, a Democrat -- that created the APPS program in 2001.
Speier, D-Hillsborough, called out the NRA specifically in a news release Wednesday: "The NRA is the first to say that we need to get the guns out of the hands of criminals. This bill does just that. We anxiously await their support."
The NRA didn't return a call or an e-mail seeking comment. And spokespeople for Reps. Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay, and John Campbell, R-Irvine -- who as state lawmakers had supported the state APPS bill -- couldn't say Wednesday whether they'll support the Thompson-Speier bill, HR 848.
The bill will go first to the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris in December announced that more than 2,000 firearms had been seized using the state's database in the first 11 months of 2012. Harris was in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday to endorse Thompson and Speier's bill and called APPS "a proactive, smart, efficient tool that is taking firearms out of the hands of people who are prohibited from possessing them."
Despite the program's promise, officials from Harris' department told the state Senate last month that APPS had produced a backlog of almost 20,000 names of people who are believed to own guns illegally due to convictions or mental illness, yet haven't been followed up upon because the state lacks resources to do so. SB 140 by state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, would let the state divert some money from its firearms background-check system to help eliminate that backlog.