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San Diego city attorney’s office reaches milestone: 1,000 gun-violence restraining orders

San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott
San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott says her office has worked with police to intervene “in more than 1,000 situations that could have had tragic results.”
(Provided by Mara Elliott )

Threats of violence toward an intimate partner — current or former — or a family member account for nearly a third of the ‘permanent’ restraining orders obtained, which can separate people from their guns for five years.

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For nearly five years, the San Diego city attorney’s office has embraced the use of gun-violence restraining orders that allow authorities to temporarily seize guns from people who are considered to pose a credible threat of violence.

Recently, the office reached a milestone: It has obtained its 1,000th such order.

Gun-violence restraining orders, approved by judges, are intended to be crisis intervention. They require people to surrender or sell their firearms, and bar them from having guns or ammunition for the duration of the order. They are handled in civil court, not criminal court.

City Attorney Mara Elliott’s office won its first such order in 2018 and now leads the state in their use.

Red-flag laws, the kind that allow gun-violence restraining orders, received fresh attention last week following deadly mass shootings in Colorado and Virginia.

In San Diego, the city attorney’s office estimates that in more than 50 orders it sought over the past five years, the subject had threatened violence that could have harmed at least three people, thus qualifying as a potential mass-casualty incident. That includes people who threatened to open fire on a school site, workplace or busy public place.

Elliott said the city has a “robust response to potential gun violence” and that her office has worked with San Diego police to intervene “in more than 1,000 situations that could have had tragic results.”

By the middle of October, Elliott’s office had obtained a total of 1,011 orders over nearly five years. The orders start as temporary, until a judge can hear from those who had their weapons removed and can evaluate the evidence.

Of the 1,011 cases, less than half — 437 — have resulted in a judge deeming the order “permanent,” though the gun-removal orders are capped at five years.

Of the permanent gun-violence restraining orders obtained by the city attorney’s office, threat of self-harm accounted for about a third, according to data the office provided.

Threat of violence toward an intimate partner — current or former — accounted for 100 cases, and 39 involved family violence. Taken together, those approach another third of the cases.

In the past five years, 22 cases involved a threat to a co-worker and 15 involved a threat to a school. An additional 73 cases involved a threat to a stranger.

Cases can be wrapped up in several other ways.

Elliott’s office said 110 cases — roughly 10 percent of all the temporary gun-removal orders the office has obtained — ended with less-restrictive alternatives imposed and the person was able to keep the weapon. The alternatives might be an agreement to lock the gun away, take a firearms safety course or enter a mental health treatment program.

Sometimes the city attorney’s office will drop the case if the person is sentenced for a crime that prohibits ownership of firearms. Sometimes the person has left the region or can’t be found to be served with notification of the court hearing.

As of October, about 85 cases were pending a hearing for a judge to determine whether to make the order permanent.

According to data provided by Elliott’s office, 91 percent of those who received a permanent restraining order were men.

Critics argue that gun-violence restraining orders can be an overreach.

Michael Schwartz, executive director of the San Diego County Gun Owners PAC, said his organization is “deeply concerned with the lack of protections for gun owners.” He said the restraining orders were “sold to the public as ‘red flag'-type laws, but Mara Elliott has turned them into standard procedure almost anytime their office deals with a gun owner.”

“If someone is committing a crime, law enforcement can remove guns without a GVRO,” Schwartz said. “If someone isn’t committing a crime, law enforcement is abusing their authority by taking away a person’s ability to defend their self.”

Elliott said her office is “not trying take away guns from responsible gun owners. It’s when they are acting irresponsible that we take notice.”

Each person has due process and there “a lot of checks and balances,” Elliott said. She added that a judge has to agree with the assessment that a danger exists.

“We exercise a lot of caution when we look at these to make sure we’ve got the facts in place, because we don’t want to jeopardize a program that is good for the community’s public safety by making bad choices,” she said.

The first gun-violence restraining order in a case brought by the San Diego city attorney’s office was granted Jan. 3, 2018. It took a little more than a year to hit the 100 mark. The pace has quickened.

In 2020, a study by the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis credited Elliott’s office for driving increased use of gun-violence restraining orders in California.

About 37 percent of all GVROs in California that year were in San Diego County, according to state Attorney General Rob Bonta’s office. Last year, Bonta called the region the “epicenter” for obtaining such restraining orders, and in October this year he praised the region’s efforts.

“San Diego has established a robust program and the evidence shows that it works — it has prevented multiple mass shootings,” Bonta contended in a statement.

San Diego police and prosecutors are training other agencies in the state on how to obtain gun-violence restraining orders. Elliott said a local school district recently obtained its first GVRO, but she said she didn’t know more about that case. ◆