Column: California law makes locking up guns easier than locking up possibly dangerous gun owners


Another day, another mass shooting — nearly one a day in this country, a dozen people dead this time, and a gunman who mocked the world on social media even as he was killing people in a Thousand Oaks bar. “It’s too bad I won’t get to see all the illogical and pathetic reasons people will put in my mouth as to why I did it,” he posted as police were arriving at the Borderline Bar. “I hope people call me insane … wouldn’t that just be a big ball of irony? Yeah … I’m insane … but the only thing you people do after these shootings is ‘hopes and prayers’ …”

A different murder-suicide rampage, in Isla Vista in May 2014, compelled Democratic state legislators Das Williams of Santa Barbara and Nancy Skinner of Berkeley to craft the Gun Violence Restraining Order measure. It’s been state law for nearly three years. If someone with guns looks to be suicidal or homicidal, then a relative, a roommate, or law enforcement can go to court to get a restraining order.

It can bar someone from owning or buying guns for three weeks. That person can make his case to the judge for getting his guns back. Or he could lose them for a year.

It’s a lower hurdle to reach than the state’s current 5150 law, which requires a mental health disorder diagnosis to hold someone against his will, as a danger to himself or others. Williams is now a Santa Barbara County supervisor, and with so many lives that might be saved by a gun violence restraining order, it worries him that more people don’t use it. A court ruling separating the person from the guns means families don’t have to go it alone. Williams himself once felt he had to take a gun away from his grieving father, so he knows whereof he speaks.

Tell me about the law that’s been in effect since 2016.

This created one of the nation's first “red flag” laws, referring to whenever people, after events like this, say there were red flags about someone's mental illness. What it would do is allow family members, roommates and law enforcement to obtain a gun violence restraining order that removes someone who is a danger to themselves or others from their firearms for a 21-day period. [That gun owner] can respond to the petition at the court, and then the court decides whether to have the firearms deprived of that individual for a longer period of time.

Some people believe that a 5150 is easy enough to obtain, and it really isn't. A 5150 is what's called an involuntary hold. It’s when you are determined by a psychologist or psychiatrist that you are a danger to yourself or others, but it has a very high threshold.

You have to pose an imminent threat, and the person who makes that determination has to know what the means of the violence would be, and a general sense of the timing of the violence, and that's all a pretty high threshold for someone to reach.

And in most of these cases, a mentally ill person — even someone who's having a lot of issues like some of the recent tragedies — wouldn't reach the threshold for a 5150 unless the psychologist knew [specifically] when they were going to act and how they were going to act.

But to give you an idea, [Isla Vista mass killer] Elliot Rodger, who issued a manifesto against all young women — even after the manifesto came out, technically you could not have reached the threshold for a 5150, because his threat was not specific about anyone in particular.

It’s a useful tool, but it's not the only tool that should be out there for law enforcement, which is why we passed this law. But the main issue with it is, most people don't know it exists. And so most family members don't know what to do if they have a son or daughter who’s suicidal and has firearms, or one who poses a threat to other people because they are shooting off guns in the night or suffer from a great deal of anger or paranoia.

Most parents in this situation don't know what to do. I just want them to know that there is one thing you can do, especially if you know they are in possession of firearms. If you care about them, deprive them of those firearms, and you can do so by petitioning the court for a gun violence restraining order.

This could also stop these people from buying firearms, as well as handing over the guns that they have in their possession already?

That's right.

Law enforcement was called to the home of the Borderline Bar and Grill shooter, and evidently it was determined by a mental health team that he was not a danger. Do you think that even law enforcement knows that this is out here as a tool for them?

I think that it's important to note that what the visit determined was that it did not meet the threshold for a 5150. That does not mean that someone is OK, and that’s my point about how difficult it is to reach the threshold for a 5150. And law enforcement has what I would call a medium level of awareness about this law.

It’s higher in some jurisdictions like Santa Barbara County. Because we've been through this tragedy, we have a higher level of knowledge about it. It’s not being used very often by members of the public. I hope that in order to reduce the frequency of shootings like this — and even more so to reduce the incidence of suicide by firearms — that people would avail themselves of the gun violence restraining order process.

The Borderline killer and his mother had supposedly had a number of loud arguments. But the mother had reportedly told someone — a neighbor, a friend — that she wasn't concerned about her safety. She was concerned about her son's safety. Could this law could have applied there, from what you know?

It's hard to judge the situation without being able to hear the conversations with the parent or with law enforcement, but on its surface, it seems like a textbook example of how a gun violence restraining order could help the situation.

And statistically, the mother was right: it's more often that someone in this kind of situation becomes suicidal than homicidal. The number of [gun] suicides in the United States is staggering. I think it would save lives — not only reduce the incidence of mass shootings, but even more so reduce the incidence of suicide by firearms, if people knew about this law and petitioned the court to remove firearms from loved ones who pose a threat to themselves or others.

You introduced this law the same year that Rodger went on his killing spree. What was it about his case that might have qualified under the GVRO law?

Did his family try to intercede? Did others try to intercede and got nowhere?

His family was at a loss for what to do, but his roommates knew they were clearly in danger. In fact, his roommates all moved out because they felt they were in danger, and it was the new set of roommates that Mr. Rogers slaughtered.

If you feel yourself that you are in enough danger to move out because you can hear your roommate lock and loading a firearm in his room, and screaming at the heavens and yelling and ranting, then you probably should take the trouble to petition the court instead of just moving out.

There was a welfare check made on Mr. Rodger, and if this tool had been around, it could have been used either by law enforcement or his roommates.

Dame magazine did a pretty deep dive into domestic violence, family killings, and found that about a quarter of women were afraid to try to get any kind of legal action like restraining orders because they might find themselves the victim of violence for even having tried to stop the violence. So here is the GVRO, but you put it in the hands of people who may be afraid to use it.

People are inherently afraid of confrontation, but confrontation in situations like this could save lives. The first instinct that people have is, what do you do to make sure this never happens again?

That is a natural emotion, but it is not based in reality. We're not going to stop these things from ever happening again. But we could reduce how often they happen. And people are understandably fed up with how often this happens. And my thought is, if we channel some of that anger and dismay into action in our everyday lives, to maybe say, “This fellow is going through a lot. He’s someone that I even may empathize with. But he’s not somebody that should have firearms in his possession.”

I think only four other states have this law. Why so few?

Some of parents of the victims of the Isla Vista massacre are going legislature by legislature [to get the GVRO law on the books in other states]. I think with some of the gains that Democrats just made in the state legislatures and the national election, there will be more of these.

The process of government and the courts seems pretty opaque to your average person. Walk us through the procedure for getting a gun violence restraining order in California.

In California, you have to be either a family member or a roommate or a law enforcement official to obtain a gun violence restraining order. It’s inclusive of somebody who's living with you.

And you would ask a [Superior Court] judge for the restraining order. The judge would check some of the basic things like, are you one of people who qualifies [to file for a GVRO], and some of the circumstances around it,. If there is cause to believe it has merit, the 21-day clock would begin, and in that time the person would be deprived of their firearms by law enforcement. The person would have a chance to respond and go to the court and say. “You know what? My mom thought I was depressed, but I’m OK now.”

So after 21 days, either the person gets back their firearms, or the judge decides that, no, this person actually is a danger to themselves or others. And then they would be deprived of their firearms for a year, with the possibility of that being reinstated a year from then.

The way I respond to the detractors to the red flag law is, say the worst-case scenario that happens — a situation of a gun violence restraining order that just doesn't have a whole lot of merit — is that someone loses their gun for 21 days. I don't believe that that is a tragedy comparable to the tragedies that are happening. We have mass killings in this country with blinding frequency, hundreds per year.

Even though it was a mass homicide that sparked the law, the reality is that more people will be saved from suicide by this. One of the reasons why family members shirk away from doing this is out of some weird misplaced loyalty to the person in question. If you really love someone, you do not want them to be suicidal with a firearm — or potentially even worse than suicidal, homicidal with one.

I can speak from experience that it's the right thing to do, to deprive a loved one of a firearm, even if it's a temporary measure.

My own father’s life partner — his girlfriend, but that understates her value to him — passed away after a long battle with cancer. I knew he had a weapon, I knew he shouldn't have the weapon, I took the weapon. In the 1990s, when that happened to me, that was your only real option. Now that there is a legal means to take away a loved one's firearm when they are not in the mental condition to be in possession of a firearm, my hope is that people will use it.

It sounds as if you were afraid he would take his own life.

Yes. I was relatively certain that there was at least a small amount of danger of that. [His father is still living, and well.]

And think about back in the ‘90s, the amount of attention that had to be put on domestic violence in order to make domestic violence restraining orders known to the public. Now everybody knows that that's what you do. But that wasn't true back in the 1990s. It took a concerted effort to highlight the issue and educate the public.

I think it's almost incalculable, the number of lives that domestic violence restraining orders have saved in the past couple of decades. But that wouldn't have happened without a whole lot of attention.

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