By Mara W. Elliott
Mass shootings and everyday gun violence have become so commonplace in America that many are losing hope that we can stop the senseless loss of innocent lives.
In San Diego, my office and the Police Department are restoring hope by leading the state in using a relatively new tool that prevents gun violence when red flags appear: the Gun Violence Restraining Order (GVRO).
Courts issue GVROs against a person who poses a clear threat to themself or others, preventing them from possessing, accessing, or purchasing firearms or ammunition.
My office has obtained more than 80 GVROs this year, leading to the surrender of more than a dozen assault weapons, 200 other firearms, and 80,000 rounds of ammunition. In each case, we presented a judge with clear and convincing evidence — warning signs that could not be ignored.
There’s no telling how many lives we’ve saved. Some GVRO respondents had made specific threats to kill. Others threatened suicide. Many used their firearms recklessly because of addiction or mental health issues.
The California law was prompted by the 2014 mass shooting in Isla Vista, a community where I felt safe as a student while attending University of California Santa Barbara. A GVRO could have prevented that tragedy and hundreds like it. Yet few California cities were obtaining GVROs until I became your city attorney and made this program my priority.
Our success was noticed in Sacramento and we were asked to conduct GVRO training for law enforcement agencies and their attorneys throughout California. Our fourth training is this month, in Anaheim. Previous trainings were held in San Diego, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties.
Here are examples of how we’ve used GVROs to prevent predictable tragedies:
A car dealership employee made disturbing comments to his co-workers, praising the Las Vegas mass shooter for setting a modern record for killing, fantasizing about shooting up a mosque, and vowing to return to work with a gun if he were fired. My office obtained a GVRO and the man surrendered a semi-automatic rifle with significant killing capability.
After a student discussed conducting a school shooting on social media, police found disturbing images on his social media, including racist posts and photos of him shooting an AK-47 rifle, and learned he had killed small animals on campus. Our GVRO prevents the student from accessing firearms.
A wife heard her husband cocking a pistol in their bathroom during an argument over their divorce and hid the pistol the next morning. The husband returned two days later and said he was going to shoot her and their infant child. Our GVRO allowed police to confiscate the pistol.
A man made a suicide threat to his fiancé, and later assaulted his elderly father for refusing to hand over his firearms. Police arrested him and he threatened to shoot a police officer on his release. With our GVRO, police confiscated seven guns, including three AR-15 rifles.
A man believed to be in the early stages of dementia threatened to shoot his wife and a neighbor because he erroneously believed they were having an affair. His 75-year-old wife escaped the house, barefoot, by climbing over a fence and running through a cactus garden. We obtained a GVRO and police seized a rifle and two pistols.
These examples show how GVROs prevent gun violence in a range of situations where other laws do not allow so quick a response to an immediate threat.
As the mother of young children, I was forever changed by the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Now, as your city attorney, I work every day to protect San Diego’s children, and everyone else who could be the victim of foreseeable gun violence.
—Mara W. Elliott was elected City Attorney of San Diego in 2016 after serving as the chief deputy attorney for the Office’s Public Services Section and legal adviser to the city’s Independent Audit Committee and Environment Committee. Mara and the lawyers in her section held polluters accountable, reformed city contracting, cut administrative red tape, and strengthened the city’s Living Wage and Non-Discrimination in Contracting ordinances.