After three recent mass shootings in California, Ohio and Texas, the topic of extreme risk protection orders, commonly known as “red flag laws,” was raised in the national conversation as a possible solution to curb gun violence.
California is one of 17 states and the District of Columbia to have a red flag law which temporarily removes firearms from people who the courts determine to be a danger to themselves or others.
In California, the law is called a gun violence restraining order (GVRO) which can be filed by an immediate family member or police officer. Since the law went into effect in 2016, there have been 414 orders issued according to the Department of Justice.
There seems to have been little or no impact locally.
“What this seems to do is fill a gap,” said Clint Curry, district attorney for Yuba County. “It would give law enforcement a tool to ask the court prior to the person committing a crime.”
In Glenn County, there were two gun violence restraining orders issued in the first two years of the law’s existence, according to the California Department of Justice. Glenn County Sheriff Richard Warren said the law is treated basically the same as other orders where firearms are removed from people’s possession.
“The process for us is basically the same,” Warren said. The biggest difference is how that goes through the court process.”
Curry said the district attorney’s office doesn’t deal with GVRO’s directly, but rather with cases related to restricting gun access, such as if a person was being considered for a domestic violence restraining order or criminal protective order.
He said that judges will often ask whether someone has access to firearms when looking at a case.
“We’re assessing and saying maybe there’s less of a risk if he can’t contact the victim and can’t possess firearms,” Curry said. “Taking firearms away during the pendency of the case is just one way to reduce the risk that one individual poses.”
Reducing risk is a large part of the California law, which was enacted in 2014 in response to a mass murder in the Santa Barbara community Isla Vista.
Local Assemblyman James Gallagher, Republican of Yuba City, said in an email that he believes restraining orders can be helpful, but that there is a backlog of people with criminal convictions or mental health issues that still possess firearms, which he says is his concern.
“I favor getting guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill,” Gallagher said. “Restraining orders can be a useful tool, but only if they are enforced.”
State Sen. Jim Nielsen, Republican of Red Bluff, declined to comment, but voted against the 2014 legislation.
With the profile on red flag laws raised, there are those who oppose them citing an infringement on Second Amendment rights. Curry’s response is to trust the courts and the checks and balances in place.
“I would say that it is temporary and there are safeguards built into the system,” Curry said.
How it works
A gun violence restraining order is granted if a judge finds that the person being petitioned is dangerous to themselves or others by possessing, purchasing or controlling firearms in the near future, according to a California Courts website fact sheet.
California grants temporary or emergency restraining orders which are effective immediately if granted verbally or written by a judge, and valid for up to 21 days. To have a restraining order lasting up to one year, there must be a court hearing at which a judge will consider all evidence and decide whether to grant a GVRO.
If granted, the person will have to surrender all firearms, ammunition and magazines they possess to the police and cannot buy new guns for the duration of the GVRO.
According to a California Courts website fact sheet, a petition for a GVRO must be filed with the superior court in the county where the person to be restrained lives. There are four separate forms that must be completed and given to the court to have the petition considered.
For a GVRO to be granted, the petitioner must attend a hearing and convince the judge that the person to be restrained is a “significant danger” to themselves or others in the near future by possessing a firearm, according to a California Courts website fact sheet. A petitioner can use witnesses, photos, medical or police reports, threatening messages and damaged property as evidence to convince the judge to grant a GVRO.
The GVRO does not order the restrained person to stay away from individuals, moving out of their home or break contact with children, relatives or friends. There are other types of orders like domestic violence or harassment restraining orders that offer more protections.
Nationally, there is some momentum in Congress to consider passing a federal version of a red flag law, according to the Associated Press.
At the state level, there is legislation working through a committee to broaden who can petition a GVRO to include teachers and co-workers.
Whatever happens in the state, Curry said, they should provide proper funding for training in how police departments should handle and enforce GVROs.
“If they want it done well, if they want agencies trained, they have to fund it otherwise agencies have to assimilate to all the new laws and procedures,” Curry said.