Homicide statistics show that for many people the single most dangerous moment of their life will come while they’re at home with, or on the run from, a potentially lethal intimate partner.
That’s probably been true since humans have been cohabitating. It’s not something that’s become true only as guns have become ubiquitous in American society.
That said, a 7-year-old state law initially aimed at ratcheting down domestic violence is, in fact, about guns. And a group trying to spread the word about that category of gun law, known as Gun Violence Restraining Orders, is Human Options, an Irvine-based nonprofit aimed at helping victims of domestic violence.
“We were part of domestic violence death review team two years ago that looked at more than 100 (homicide) cases (over an 11-year window) involving intimate partners in Orange County,” said Maricela Rios-Faust, chief executive of Human Options.
“We wondered if there were opportunities to prevent those deaths. … If, maybe, there were educational opportunities.”
Last year, Human Options won a $100,000 grant to inform key people about gun violence restraining orders, or GVROs. Since then the agency has talked with police groups and held group meetings and launched a social media campaign to spread the GVRO word.
“We basically are letting people know that there is a tool that can be used to increase victim safety,” Rios-Faust said.
It’s an oddity of sorts. California has at least 107 gun laws on the books, more than any other state. And by most accounts the state’s long and restrictive list of gun rules is a key reason why the state’s gun death rate (8.8 per 100,000 people) is the nation’s sixth-lowest, about 36% lower than the national average.
Yet the state gun law that might have the most impact – the one that experts believe might even reduce a form of gun violence considered the most difficult to stave off – is so infrequently used that it needs a public relations campaign.
“About 11% (of GVROs) are issued against people making credible threats of mass shootings,” wrote Andrew Morral, a behavioral scientist with RAND Corp. via email.
Morral, who leads the Santa Monica-based think tank’s Gun Policy Project, noted it’s hard to track how many deaths don’t happen as a result of any particular law, so the effectiveness of GVROs vis-a-vis mass shootings or any other form of gun violence isn’t easy to prove. What’s more, the law is more popular in some parts of the state than it is in others.
But Morral said the data that is available suggests GVROs – California’s version of a red flag law – warrants scrutiny.
“Absent better evidence about the causal effects of these laws, it is the kind of evidence I think we should be looking at, as it is at least consistent with the view that these laws are doing good.”
Police and judges have known about GVROs since the law took effect in 2016. But because the restraining orders are issued in civil courts, and police agencies generally deal with criminal courts, they haven’t been used as often as they might.
Only 27 of California’s 58 counties have kept track of how often GVROs have been granted in their jurisdictions. So it’s unclear how often they’re used, or why.
Still, police and others believe, the law seems to be gaining traction.
“A lot of police are starting to use this tool. But because they live in civil court, a lot of agencies need to understand what to do in civil court, which isn’t something they naturally do,” Irvine Police Lt. Sarah Tunnicliffe said.
Initially, Tunnicliffe said, police in San Diego County were the earliest adopters, using GVROs before other agencies caught on. More recently, the Irvine Police Department has taken a similar role in Orange County.
“We’ve helped some other agencies get their programs up and running,” Tunnicliffe said. “It takes some training and time to understand the best use of this tool.”
There are at least two types of GVROs in California, and while the legal details can be complex, the basic idea is pretty simple:
If a judge is shown evidence that a person with access to guns poses a danger to anyone, including themselves, the judge can order that person to hand over his or her guns and ammunition for a period ranging from a few weeks to a few years. The guns are returned based on everything from the person committing no violence during a pre-set cooling-off period to the person seeking care for mental health or substance abuse problems.
The argument against GVROs also is simple: It takes away an individual’s constitutional right (in this case, the right to bear arms) before that person has done anything wrong.
Gun advocates liken GVROs to how the concept of prior restraint might erode the First Amendment, by allowing a potential libel victim to prevent a journalist or news outlet from telling a story that might maliciously and erroneously harm their reputation.
The key difference is that a libel victim figures to be alive to argue about the problem after they’ve been harmed. A gun crime victim might not.
“We’re simply using this law to protect the community, and the individual, from harm,” Tunnicliffe said. “We look at it as a tool to keep the individuals safe.”
Though domestic disputes account for about 1 in 6 homicides, and data suggests a spouse or intimate partner is shot dead about once every two weeks in Orange County, GVROs go far beyond that arena. For example, most gun deaths are by suicide, not homicide, and people exhibiting suicidal behavior can be separated from their guns via a GVRO. Same for people who make threats against schools or workplaces or churches – categories of gun violence that have become more common in recent years.
The law has expanded in other ways, too. When it kicked in, seven years ago, the primary reporters were police, who would collect evidence about a person’s potential danger and present that evidence to a judge. But the law has been amended and, today, many others can act as reporters – everybody from the potential victim, to roommates, current or former partners, teachers, bosses, co-workers, or people who have children with the potentially dangerous gun owner.
The key, however, is that evidence has to be collected and it has to be shown to a judge. That judge – not police agencies or any potential victim – makes the call on whether a person must surrender his or her weapons.
Tunnicliffe said the bar to suspend someone’s Second Amendment right remains “pretty high.”
‘Does it work?’
Gun law experts – who have studied cases in states with similar gun restraining order laws and where data is more widely available than it is in California – say Tunnicliffe’s “high bar” assertion is supported by data.
“A lot of the descriptive work being done in California and elsewhere looks like these orders are being used to remove firearms from people making pretty scary threats,” Morral wrote.
Earlier this month, during an online seminar on gun law research presented by RAND, April Zeoli, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, offered data showing that GVROs in California and other states are, in fact, targeting people contemplating lethal events.
The survey, based on about 6,700 GVRO requests made in six states, showed nearly half (49%) of the restraining orders involved threats against intimate partners – a type of threat that experts say is acted out more than any other.
In other cases, guns were taken after people had made “mass-casualty” threats against schools, workplaces, hospitals and political rallies. In so-called “targeted threats” restraining orders were granted after a person said they planned to shoot students, teachers, family members or police they mentioned by name. About 10% of the restraining orders involved threats of suicide.
The study noted that police and others seeking gun restraining orders were successful 93% of the time.
“I don’t know how you can measure what didn’t happen. But I believe these are starting to make a dent,” Human Options’ Rios-Faust said.
But experts said it’s still just a start.
It’s understood that there are loopholes – anybody ordered to give over a gun can find a replacement fairly easily if so inclined, or simply not turn over all the guns they have. It’s also understood that violence, particularly domestic violence, doesn’t always involve guns.
It’s why at least one gun researcher suggested that it’s important to understand the difference between laws that separate potential shooters from their weapons, and laws that make the public safer.
“Laws can’t be measured like a molecule, they’re a legal tool,” said Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry and a researcher with the Center for Firearms Law at Duke Law School.
“If you have a law, and it’s fully executed, yeah, it can work; it can take guns away,” he said. “But the questions boil down to real-world effectiveness.”
Noting that GVROs are executed at different rates in different communities, and that some jurisdictions use them for people who are suffering from mental health problems while others look harder at a potential shooter’s criminal history and behavior, Swanson said the law remains a starting point, not “a panacea.”
“It’s a piece in the puzzle of preventing gun violence.”