Friends, Teachers, Coworkers, Could Soon Have Authority to Remove Gun Owners’ Weapons: A Look at California’s Red Flag Law

After a spate of deadly mass shootings across the country, politicians on both sides of the aisle are calling for new regulations that would take guns away from anyone who poses a threat. California is one of 17 states that already allows police officers to seize someone’s firearm if they can prove to a judge the gun owner is dangerous. Supporters of the red flag law say it’s an important tool to combat gun violence, but critics warn that taking away someone’s gun could prove deadly.

Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Marisa Mckeown has trained hundreds of officers how to file a gun violence restraining order with the court. Despite her efforts, Mckeown believes there are still hundreds of officers across the state who aren’t even aware the law exists.

“Our gun laws are only as effective as the people who enforce them. So if law enforcement doesn’t know how to do a gun violence restraining order, that’s a problem for all of us,” Mckeown told NBC Bay Area.

Data from the state Attorney General’s Office shows that California judges issued more than 600 orders to remove a firearm from 2016 through 2018. Santa Clara county ranks fourth in the state issuing 42 orders. Alameda County issued 10, while San Francisco only issued one.

Santa Clara County gun owners who had their weapons removed this year include an employee who threatened a human resources manager, a landlord who threatened his tenant, and a resident who pulled a shotgun on his neighbors for making too much noise.

“The more of these that we do, the more that we empower the public to remove weapons from those who are a risk, the more we can prevent the type of tragedy that we've seen,” Mckeown said. “Especially in this county. In a one-month period, Santa Clara County had three mass shootings.”

RED FLAG LAWS – UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES?

Currently only police and family members can request to have someone’s gun taken away. But state lawmakers are debating whether to extend that right to friends, teachers, and coworkers.

Matthew Larosiere with the Firearms Policy Coalition believes red flag laws may discourage gun owners from seeking mental health treatment and potentially cause even more deaths. He points to an incident in Maryland when Anne Arundel police killed a 61-year-old man while attempting to serve a gun restraining order.

Larosiere points out that in some instance, the court can grant a gun restraining order without the gun owner’s knowledge until police come knocking at the door.

“They don't even know that there has been a hearing. What is that going to do, when we’ve already see how tense relationships are with police. You think it’s going to make it better? I don't think so,” Larosiere said.

"If you're a gun owner experiencing a tough time and you know that if you go to a therapist there's a chance that you'll have your rights removed, does that increase or decrease the chance that you'll see a therapist and get medication?"

Mckeown defends the law arguing that these orders are temporary, with most only lasting 21 days, so gun owners who need mental health treatment shouldn’t fear seeking help.

“When the public knows about the tool, when law-enforcement knows this is an option, when you see a person who is a risk, you can now do something about it before they harm someone,” Mckeown said.

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