Public Safety & Justice

After Isla Vista, Lawmakers Want to Take Guns from Dangerous People

California legislators proposed a bill to confiscate guns from people who pose a threat to themselves or others. Other states are already considering following suit.
by | June 6, 2014
A board showing the weapons that Elliot Rodger, 22, used when he went on a rampage May 23 near the University of California, Santa Barbara.
A board showing the weapons that Elliot Rodger, 22, used when he went on a rampage May 23 near the University of California, Santa Barbara. He fatally stabbed three people before shooting and killing three more. AP/Jae C. Hong
 

State lawmakers in California have introduced a bill in the past week that would allow police to seize guns temporarily from people who pose a threat to themselves or others. The legislation comes in response to a mass shooting last month in Isla Vista, Calif.

Before that killing spree, the shooter posted some online videos that so worried his mother that she contacted mental health officials, who then contacted the police. When law enforcement visited his house for a wellness check, they determined that he seemed "shy, timid, polite and well-spoken." Because the man had not committed a crime and did not appear to meet criteria for civil involuntary commitment for mental health treatment, state law did not allow police to remove his firearms, even if they had reason to believe he was dangerous.

“When someone is in crisis, the people closest to them are often the first to spot the warning signs," said California Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, the bill's sponsor, in a written statement. "Parents, like the mother who tried to intervene, deserve an effective tool they can act on to help prevent these tragedies."

Under the California proposal, family members, co-workers, partners and close friends could apply for a court order that would temporarily stop someone who poses a violent threat from purchasing a gun. Under the bill, courts could also issue a special warrant, allowing police to take temporary possession of firearms.

While California appears to be the first state to consider this form of gun regulation, staff at Skinner's office said they have already fielded inquires from politicians in other states. A New Jersey state legislator, for example, announced June 4 that he plans to introduce his own bill relating to temporary gun violence protection orders. Oregon State Sen. Ginny Burdick said she, too, is interested in sponsoring a bill, though she will have to wait until next year's legislative session.*

The California bill outlines an appeals process, so that the person who is subject to the prevention warrant (or court order) must receive a hearing within 14 days of losing his guns (or the ability to purchase guns).

In cases where the court determines that people do pose a significant threat to themselves or others, they're banned from owning or purchasing a firearm for up to one year.  During that prohibition period, possessing or purchasing a gun would qualify as misdemeanor in California.

The state legislation includes a provision for renewing the court order to continue preventing a dangerous person from owning or buying a gun, which would entail another hearing.

The legislation spells out myriad criteria for a state court to approve either the prevention order or the warrant, such as having a history of violent behavior and responsibility for any recent threat or act of violence.

The bill as it's currently drafted is strictly focused on eliminating access to firearms for potentially dangerous people. It does not outline any mental health treatment or counseling that the individual person might need to become less dangerous.

The state proposal borrows heavily from some existing state laws pertaining to domestic violence, including in California, meant to protect victims of domestic violence. Thirty-six states prohibit an individual from buying a gun or owning a gun when he has a domestic violence protection order in effect against him, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

A federal bill introduced yesterday by Congressional representatives from California calls for the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services -- a division within the U.S. Department of Justice -- to allocate grants to states that enact laws like the one being considered by the California legislature.

The proposed law would function as a carrot to convince more states to follow California's lead. The grants would help law enforcement agencies defray any new costs associated with confiscating firearms and preventing their purchase. Created in response to the Isla Vista shooting, where police did not check gun databases before interviewing the eventual perpetrator, the federal grants would require officials to consult such databases as part of the so-called wellness-check procedure.

The California Association of Federal Firearms Licensees, a gun-rights advocacy group, has already sent a letter to Skinner and her co-sponsor, Assemblyman Das Williams, arguing that the bill violates the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. The group's criticism boils down to a concern about the government depriving people of their right to own guns without first notifying them and giving them an opportunity to defend that right in court.

The group also warned that "the ease with which the constitutional right to possess a firearm may be secretly restricted makes [the bill] fertile ground for ... family law disputes between angry spouses or run of the mill grudge matches between neighbors."

*This story has been updated to reflect new information about additional states also considering the idea of gun violence protection orders. 

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