State takes man's guns: 'He said we made a big mistake'

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) A Bakersfield man was stunned when state agents showed up at his home and took all his guns.

Eighteen weapons were seized but then returned a couple weeks later. Eyewitness News discovered it was the work of a special state task force.

The weapons were returned to Michael Merritt, but he's left with plenty of questions.

"It's just the worst feeling," Merritt told Eyewitness News. "It's a loss of your liberty, of your rights. I almost passed out when they said they wanted all my guns."

Merritt said that was the night of Nov. 5. Several agents arrived at his door and started asking questions about which guns he owned.

"I thought, he's here to get my guns for some reason," Merritt described. "He says, 'You have a felony here from 1970.' I said, 'A felony? A pot possession charge from 1970.'"

The gun owner said the officers showed him a print-out of the charge. It lists the offense under a code of 11910, from a Los Angeles community. Merritt said he remembers the incident from more than 40 years ago, and he doesn't think the charge is on the books now.

"Doesn't exist anymore," Merritt argued. "I mean, it's a ticket now days."

Eyewitness News checked the penal code, and 11910 doesn't show up.

Merritt also disputed whether the charge was ever a felony.

"I truly, honestly don't remember pleading guilty to any felony," he said. "The jail time was like five weekends."

He remembered getting probation and a fine of about $100.

Merritt said the agents still took the guns. They seized five registered handguns, plus some weapons his wife owns and some he'd inherited.

The couple protested, but didn't get far.

"We told them to leave the house and go get a warrant, and they said that's fine," wife Karla Merritt said.

"But, when we get the warrant and we come back, you're going to jail," agents reportedly told the couple.

Michael Merritt said he had to get to work, so they let the agents take the guns.

The agents were with a special state unit tasked with checking the lists of registered gun owners against databases showing people who are not allowed to have weapons. It was set up under a 2001 law, Senate Bill 950, which created the Armed and Prohibited Persons System (APPS).

"APPS cross-references five databases to find people who legally purchased handguns and registered assault weapons since 1996 with those prohibited from owning or possessing firearms," reads a fact sheet from the office of Attorney General Kamala Harris.

The unit falls under the Bureau of Firearms in the state Department of Justice. An assistant chief with the Bureau of Firearms confirmed to Eyewitness News that Merritt was on the APPS list, showed up as having a felony conviction, and agents had cross-checked the two lists.

The spokesman said the agents took the information to an analyst who ran it through different databases, and they got a print-out showing the conviction.

Merritt said several days after his guns were taken, an agent called back to say his guns would be returned.

"I asked him, 'Why did you do this? What's going on?' He said, 'We made a big mistake,'" according to Merritt.

On Nov. 21, Merritt said several officers came back and returned all the guns.

The Bureau of Firearms spokesman who responded to Eyewitness News said the agents in Merritt's case were working from court records that had not been updated. He said sometimes court records are not inputted correctly. The agent said the old case had been reduced to a misdemeanor.

The spokesman said though Merritt had told the agents the old case wasn't a felony, Merritt didn't have paperwork to show that. The agent said the officers kept researching the case to verify it.

"I'm glad we got them back, we got lucky," Merritt said. "Because we never thought we'd see the guns again, ever."

Eyewitness News asked how often guns get returned after an APPS seizure. The spokesman didn't have hard numbers, but said sometimes guns are returned based on a court order, disposition of a case, or they can be transferred to another individual.

As for how often there's a situation like Merritt's, the assistant chief said it's rare.

The task force cross-references five databases, according to information about the law. The agent who responded to Eyewitness News said the Attorney General has a priority of being "smart on crime" and using technology to be efficient. He said many databases are disconnected and don't talk to each other. SB 950 seeks to change that.

The law also sets out exactly who is a "prohibited person."

"A person becomes prohibited if he or she is convicted of a felony or a violent misdemeanor, is placed under a domestic violence restraining order or is determined to be mentally unstable," reads a statement from the AG's office last year.

As for how Merritt was able to buy and register a gun, but then turn up on the APPS list as a felon, the agent who responded to Eyewitness News said the database used for the background check was updated on the status of his 1970 case, but the one cross-checked by the APPS unit wasn't.

The APPS unit was given additional funds last year, after the passage of SB 140. That authorized the use of $24 million from the Dealers' Record of Sale Special Account, and the AG's statement said that would allow for hiring 36 additional agents for the task force.

"Over the last two years, DOJ agents have investigated nearly 4,000 people and seized nearly 4,000 weapons, including nearly 2,000 handguns and more than 300 assault weapons," reads the AG statement. The Bureau of Firearms assistant chief says in 2013, the unit did 3,885 investigations and seized 2,714 weapons.

That agent said the law has positive effects. He said the program is keeping people safe, and it's taking guns from people in the middle of mental illness.

That officer said California's program is being looked at by other states and at the national level, and he stresses California is the only state with a program like this.

In Merritt's case, the agent said the guns were returned, his name was removed from the APPS list, and his criminal history was corrected.

"I said, 'You know the grief you caused me?'" Merritt said he told the agent returning his weapons. "I've been sick over this actually. All of a sudden you're not who you thought you were."

Eyewitness News asked what someone could do if the APPS unit took their weapons in a similar situation. The assistant chief says it's good to keep documents or papers related to any criminal cases, if that could be an issue. He also urged patience with the program. And insists, if a gun-owner believes they should not be in the "prohibited" category, agents will continue to investigate.

In a 2012 statement when they announced results of the APPS task force, Attorney General Harris said the program is an important part of law enforcement work.

"California has clear laws determining who can possess firearms based on their threat to public safety," Harris said. "Enforcing those laws is crucial because we have seen the terrible tragedies that occur when guns are in the wrong hands."

Merritt said, based on his experience, he thinks the agents should do a better job.

"I think if you're going to do this, you need to get down and get dirty," Merritt said. "Go find the guys that are robbing banks and killing people, and take their guns from them."