Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California's first-in-the-nation gun restraining order legislation was born out of a college-town rampage that left six people dead at the hands of a killer whose family felt helpless to stop him.
Advocates say its greatest use actually might come not in preventing headline-grabbing murderous sprees, but in helping families deal with loved ones who are in danger of taking their own lives or who might be so angry or distraught that they could turn a gun on family members.
Victims of domestic violence in California already can file for restraining orders that can include the removal of firearms.
Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday signed a law that will make California the first state that lets family members ask a judge to temporarily remove firearms from a relative who appears to pose a threat. It will also let law enforcement authorities go directly to a judge to seize guns from people they deem to be a danger, as they already can in Connecticut, Indiana and Texas.
"There are many situations where family members or law enforcement feel that the person does have a degree of dangerousness or that they pose a risk to themselves or others by possessing a firearm," said Amanda Wilcox, an advocate for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, whose daughter was a victim of gun violence. "This is really a way to reduce the number of suicides when a family member can initiate this."
AB104 was proposed by several Democrats after a rampage May 23 near the University of California, Santa Barbara, in which six people were fatally stabbed or shot and 13 others wounded in the community of Isla Vista. Twenty-two-year-old Elliot Rodger then took his own life.
"This particular tool just so matched the circumstances of Elliot Rodger's mother," said Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner of Berkeley, who authored the legislation with Assemblyman Das Williams of Santa Barbara. Rodger's mother saw so many warning signs that she notified authorities, who went to her son's apartment weeks prior to the slayings but wrongly decided he was not a danger.
Rodger's father released a statement Tuesday night that said the legislation may have meant a different path for his son.
"If both of these laws had been in place on May 23, things could have been very different," Peter Rodger said. "California, today, is a safer state because of this legislation. Let's hope other states follow."
There is no indication that Elliot Rodger's parents or anyone treating him knew he had weapons. But he later wrote that had deputies searched his room, they might have found guns that police said he used to shoot three people after fatally stabbing three others.
Currently in California, authorities can seize legally purchased guns only from people convicted of a felony or a violent misdemeanor, those subject to a domestic violence restraining order, or those who are determined to be mentally unstable.
Skinner said the new law fills a gap between seeking a mental health referral and seeking a domestic violence restraining order, both of which can result in a near-permanent requirement that the individual give up his or her firearms.
Under the bill signed Tuesday, a firearm restraining order will be valid for up to a year, and the firearm owner can seek a court hearing within 14 to argue there is no danger and the guns should be returned. Whoever seeks the restraining order would sign an affidavit under oath. If they lie, they could be charged with a misdemeanor.
"It allows a temporary removal of the weapons while, hopefully, people can get help," Skinner said. It can be used where someone isn't mentally ill but has anger issues or is temporarily depressed, she said.
Family members and authorities would be better off acting under existing mental health and domestic violence laws that are too rarely used, said National Rifle Association spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen.
"It's giving people a false sense of security," Mortensen said. "This new law will not ensure that they will get any kind of mental health treatment."
She said it is too soon to say if the opponents will challenge the law in court or at the ballot box. But the organization does worry that similar efforts will now be made in other states, something that advocates said is already happening.
Democratic Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh of New York said Tuesday that he will introduce legislation patterned on California's law. Brian Malte of the Brady Campaign said a similar effort is planned in Washington, D.C. And Skinner said she has inquiries from Illinois and Oregon, among other states.
Firearms are used in the largest number of suicides compared to other means, said Randall Hagar, director of government relations for the California Psychiatric Association, which helped craft California's law.
"They may be suicidal, they may just be passionate in the moment. I think this could have wide applicability," he said. In many cases, "somebody's going to say, 'Something's not right here. Why are we letting this person have a weapon? Maybe that's not such a good idea.'"