With Congress poised to expand red flag laws nationally in response to outrage over deadly mass shootings, a new study reveals how California’s six-year-old law is making an impact: It disarmed 58 people who were threatening a gun massacre.
The study by the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California-Davis is the first detailed description of California’s gun violence restraining order cases in the state since the law was enacted in 2016.
“The gun violence restraining order law is working to prevent cases of firearm suicide and mass shootings,” said lead author Veronica A. Pear, an assistant professor at the Violence Prevention Research Program.
Many of the patterns revealed in the 202 cases reviewed were unmistakable: Nearly all of the people whose weapons were seized were men. More than half threatened to harm others, often intimate partners. And in nearly 30% of the cases, officers used the law to seize weapons after threats of mass shootings, including six students who had described unleashing violence at school.
Now, red flag laws, also known as extreme risk protection orders and in California, gun violence restraining orders, are a key component of a proposed bipartisan federal bill package aimed at reducing mass shootings like the rampages at an Uvalde, Texas, elementary school on May 24 and on May 14 at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket.
The gunmen in both cases were 18 years old and armed with military-style semiautomatic rifles they had bought legally after passing background checks. The Buffalo gunman was motivated by racial hatred; the Uvalde shooter was a high school dropout with a troubled home life.
Texas doesn’t have a red flag law, but New York does, and it could have disarmed the gunman had someone disturbed by his actions called police.
California is among 19 states with red flag laws, adopted after a 2014 mass shooting near UC-Santa Barbara by a 22-year-old sexually frustrated man who fatally shot two women outside a sorority and a man at a deli before taking his own life after a gunfight with police.
The law allows law enforcement or family members to ask a judge to temporarily order removal of guns from someone deemed an imminent threat to themselves or others. The state expanded the law in 2020 to add educators, employers and co-workers to those who could seek the orders, which can be extended to five years after a hearing.
Ari Freilich, state policy director for the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said California was “the first in the nation to pass a robust extreme risk protection bill into law, so has had a bit more time to implement it than some other states .”
Advocates say red flag laws let authorities swiftly disarm a menacing gun owner whose behavior hasn’t yet risen to the level of criminal threats or obvious psychiatric crises. But gun rights advocates have criticized the laws as open to abuse, with the initial seizure order issued before the subject can object in court.
“It takes that aspect — constitutional rights, due process — and throws it to the wind, as if it doesn’t exist,” said Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California. He said he could n’t point to specific cases in which the law was abused but he has heard from several gun owners who said they were unjustly disarmed by their exes as an act of harassment in divorce proceedings.
The UC Davis study attempted to look at the circumstances in more than 400 California gun violence restraining orders filed from 2016 to 2018. Researchers were able to obtain records for about half of them. Of the 202 cases studied, only 15% involved threats only of suicide, a departure from patterns seen in other states with red flag laws where many more involved suicidal individuals.
Of the California cases studied, 54% involved an individual who aimed solely to harm others, and 25% aimed to hurt others as well as themselves. Intimate partners were the targets in 29% of cases, the largest share. Of the rest, 23% targeted random people, 21% other family members, 11% someone at work and 9% someone at school.
Just over half of the cases involved verbal threats, and 55% involved threatening behavior, while 13% involved threatening mail, emails or texts, and 5% threats on social media.
Law enforcement filed for the orders in 95% of cases. Nearly one-third of respondents were arrested on criminal charges, and about one-fourth were put under an involuntary psychiatric hold.
Firearm removal was documented in 56% of cases, and while most involved handguns, 29% involved military-style rifles and pistols.
The law has been used more often in California since it was enacted, from 86 orders in 2016 to 1,110 in 2019, according to its author, Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco.
In one of the 58 threatened mass shootings, Pear said, police used the law in 2016 to stop a Fremont man with ties to a foreign terrorist organization from buying a military-style gun ahead of a local festival nearby.
In Santa Clara County, District Attorney Jeff Rosen cited at least four potential mass shootings averted by the law. One involved a man who threatened to shoot up the Valley Fair mall and was found with guns and ammunition in his car his. In another, a man who threatened in a racist manifesto to shoot up a sporting goods store was found with an arsenal of guns. A third case involved a fired construction worker who threatened former employers and coworkers on social media, and another disarmed a recent murder suspect of scores of military style rifles and ammunition.
However, the law can’t stop a killer when it isn’t used.
But Freilich and Rosen said the extra funding Congress is considering to provide for states to develop and implement red flag laws will help, including in those like California that have the laws. The biggest obstacle has been in raising public awareness of the law and law enforcement training in making use of it.
“These laws are a very effective tool,” Rosen said. “But they’re only as good as people knowing about them.”