Not many in California are aware of Gun Violence Restraining Orders | TheUnion.com

Not many in California are aware of Gun Violence Restraining Orders

Lorraine Jewett
Special to The Union

In California, there is a way to take guns out of the hands of people, who, like last month's Parkland, Florida shooter, pose a threat to themselves or others.

The problem, at least in Nevada County, is that few people know about Gun Violence Restraining Orders.

"We won't realize the full benefits of this law until loved ones and community members know about the law," said local gun violence prevention advocate Amanda Wilcox.

In 2014, California became the first state to allow family members to ask a judge to remove firearms from a relative who appears to pose a threat. The legislation was prompted when a mentally-ill man killed six students and wounded 13 others near UC Santa Barbara. The law took effect Jan. 1, 2016.

“She was killed by Scott Thorpe, whose family and girlfriend were all concerned about him. They knew he had firearms and were concerned about him committing suicide, but they had no legal tool to remove the firearms.”Amanda WilcoxGun violence prevention advocate

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The Gun Violence Restraining Order is a civil court order that prevents subjects who are at risk of hurting themselves or others from temporarily possessing or purchasing guns. The order is based on the procedure of domestic violence laws, and involves a court hearing.

"The GVRO law is a much-needed safety net that was missing," said Nevada County Superior Court Judge Tom Anderson. "While we all know that the circumstances surrounding the need to request this order are very complicated and emotional, the court has made it a simple process."

A family member goes to the Superior Court Civil Clerk's office in Nevada City and requests a form, or before going to court, the family member downloads the form from the court's website at Courts.Ca.Gov (search "Forms").

"If the judge signs a temporary firearm restraining order, the family member can take it directly to the Sheriff's Office and the Sheriff will have it served on the person to whom the order is directed and the officers will confiscate the firearms," said Anderson.

The judge also schedules a hearing on whether a final order prohibiting possession and purchase of firearms should be extended for one year, or sunset within 21 days.

State law allows the court to charge a filing fee, but if there is a reasonable likelihood of violence or harm, no fee will be imposed, said Anderson.

"It is the responsibility of the court to balance the rights of the family and public to be safe from likely harm with the civil rights of the individual," Anderson said. "That is why the law requires a review by a judge. If a restraining order prevents someone from committing harm, it prevents a criminal act and protects that person from the serious consequences of such an act."

In Nevada County, no orders have been requested by family members — which is why Wilcox thinks public education is necessary. An order was requested by law enforcement only once, but its effect was dramatic. It occurred last June, according to Nevada County District Attorney Cliff Newell.

"A man was threatening a neighbor with what the victim believed to be a knife while she was walking her dog," said Newell. "He stated he was going to get a gun and ran towards the house where he lived."

Newell said the victim called the Grass Valley Police Department, which had received reports from other neighbors saying the man had allegedly threatened them or brandished a firearm. 

"Grass Valley police got a search warrant for the weapons and recovered about 15 pistols, assault-style rifles, rifles with scopes, and a large amount of ammunition," said Newell. "All of the weapons at the time were California-compliant. Thereafter, in December of 2017, we stipulated that the guns be turned over to a federally-licensed firearms dealer."

Because the man was so angry over minor interactions with neighbors and had threatened people, Newell said he believes the use of a Gun Violence Restraining Order helped avert a gun-related tragedy.

"Because this person was at a point of threatening others with guns, there's a strong possibility that a tragedy was avoided here," said Newell.

The law helps not only those battling with mental-health demons, but some elderly people battling dementia.

"Sometimes, they confuse their firearm with their television remote," said Wilcox. "It's a risk to themselves, their family, and caregivers."

There is another type of Gun Violence Restraining Order in addition to the one family members request through the court. Law enforcement officers are empowered to request an immediate temporary emergency order.

If an officer deems a person "an immediate and present danger … as a result of having a gun," the officer may ask a judge anytime to issue a verbal 21-day order that takes effect immediately.

Both types of orders mandate the subject surrender guns and ammunition to law enforcement, or sell them to or store them with a licensed firearms dealer. Anyone subject to a Gun Violence Restraining Order may appeal the court to overturn it. 

Also, anyone who files an order with false information or the intent to harass can be charged with a misdemeanor.

California legislators voted to expand the law in 2016 so high school and college staff, employers, co-workers, and mental health professionals could seek Gun Violence Restraining Orders, but the bill was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown as too broad and premature.

Wilcox was instrumental in pushing the initial bill through the legislature in 2014. Wilcox said her daughter Laura, who was killed while working at Nevada County's Behavioral Health Department in 2001, might be alive today if the order law existed then.

"She was killed by Scott Thorpe, whose family and girlfriend were all concerned about him," said Wilcox. "They knew he had firearms and were concerned about him committing suicide, but they had no legal tool to remove the firearms."

Wilcox's rallying cry while the legislature debated the law was consistent.

"It's to prevent a shooting before it happens," said Wilcox. "I said over and over, 'You can always give a gun back, but you can't get a life back.' With a GVRO, the worst thing that can happen is someone doesn't have their gun for 21 days. Without intervention, the worst thing is someone may be dead.

"The law allows for quick removal of firearms while dealing with a crisis or figuring out treatment. It's a way to keep both a loved one and the community safe."

"While this law may be limited in impact to a few individuals a year, its existence is a necessary tool to prevent tragedy," said Anderson.

For more information, go to SpeakForSafety.org

Lorraine Jewett is freelance writer who lives in Nevada County. She can be reached at LorraineJewettWrites@gmail.com.

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