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June 20, 2014
Viewpoints: Gun violence restraining orders could save lives

Thumbnail image for RBGunshops5.JPG(June 20 - By Nancy Skinner, Special to The Bee)

In the six years I've served in the Legislature, our nation has endured 31 mass shootings, five of which happened in California. As tragic as mass shootings are, they don't account for the nearly 3,000 Californians who die every year from gunfire related to street and domestic violence, or suicides.

Following the tragedy at Sandy Hook, I had the opportunity to work with a wide-ranging group of academics, practitioners and advocates in the fields of mental health, public health and gun violence prevention. I was surprised by what I learned. First, I learned of leading public health data that attribute mental illness to only about 4 percent of the violence perpetrated against others. Second, the research shows individuals with mental illness are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence.

Most importantly, I learned that the most important factors indicating that someone may be dangerous to themselves or others are signs of previous acts of violence, domestic violence, drug abuse and alcohol abuse.

California is a leader in prohibiting potentially violent individuals from purchasing or possessing firearms. For example, California prohibits those convicted of violent misdemeanors from owning guns. Research shows that this prohibition has reduced the arrest rates for violent crime overall and for gun crime among those previously convicted of violent misdemeanors.

However, our laws largely apply after the fact - after someone has committed a crime or been violent. Domestic violence restraining orders are the exception. They are designed to prevent violence from escalating and to create the opportunity for intervention without making a criminal complaint. The researchers and practitioners I work with took this fundamental idea - that courts can effectively step in to prevent future acts of violence - and asked, "Could this work to prevent gun violence?"

Their answer was a resounding "yes."

One thing we know from countless tragedies involving gun violence is that family members and friends are often the first to know when their loved ones are in crisis and may be a danger to themselves or others. These family members and friends often try to intervene before harm happens.

After a tragedy occurs, we hear over and over that the shooter had displayed warning signs, but there weren't effective ways to intervene. I want to give families the tools they need to help prevent gun violence by their loved ones before it happens. This is why I have worked for the past year with researchers and advocates to create a gun violence restraining order.

It is the goal of Assembly Bill 1014, legislation that I, Assembly member Das Williams and Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, both of Santa Barbara, introduced after the May 23 killing of six college students near UC Santa Barbara.

Simply put, a gun violence restraining order would allow individuals to petition a judge to remove guns from their loved ones, knowing they are in crisis. Judges are asked to consider several factors, such as whether the individual is making credible threats, has recently purchased guns, or has a history of drug abuse or domestic violence. Based on these factors the judge may then determine that the individual is at an increased risk of dangerous behavior and therefore should not be able to purchase or possess a firearm.

And, let's be clear: Temporarily removing firearms isn't likely to resolve the underlying issues causing the dangerous behavior. But it does allow time to ensure that the individual can seek treatment for drug or alcohol abuse, anger management or mental health issues. Removing firearms from a crisis ensures that these lethal weapons cannot be used to inflict harm.

A gun violence restraining order is an evidence-informed policy that will help prevent gun violence. Our communities and our families need this important tool. We can do more and we must do more to prevent crises from ending in needless deaths.

Assembly member Nancy Skinner, a Berkeley Democrat, represents parts of Alameda and Contra Costa counties.