How California’s gun violence restraining orders can help Stanislaus law enforcement

A Denair man’s paranoia that undercover cops were using his neighbor’s property to spy on him started years ago but his response to the delusions escalated this year, then turned violent.

According to court documents, he started as a nuisance, mounting a speaker on a pole to broadcast an alarm that could be heard by neighbors up to a half-mile away. Several times neighbors also heard sounds of gunshots coming from his property.

There were 84 calls for service to his home from January to July, mostly from neighbors reporting the alarm and gunshots. Thirty were from the man himself, saying undercover officers were “shooting stuff” at him.

He respected the uniformed Stanislaus County patrol deputies who responded but told them in March he would shoot the undercover officers he believed were shooting at him.

On June 25, he delivered on his threat, firing multiple rounds from a rifle at a neighbor and his two friends. They could hear the bullets hitting the barn they were standing beside and had to run for cover.

The man was arrested and charged with assault with a deadly weapon and negligent discharge of a firearm.

Deputies seized as evidence three rifles and a handgun from the man’s home but wanted to ensure he couldn’t get them back or buy more.

Deputy Royjindar Singh used a method that has been available to law enforcement since 2016 but, like most of California’s 58 counties, had never been used in Stanislaus.

He petitioned the court for a gun violence restraining order (GVRO) against the man, which would prohibit him from owning, buying or possessing any firearms and ammunition. He was granted a temporary 21-day order and on Tuesday, after answering a few questions from a judge, got a 1-year order.

California third state to adopt order

In 2016, California became the third state to adopt gun violence restraining orders as a tool for law enforcement, by order of a judge, to bar a person from possessing firearms if they can prove the person poses a threat to themselves or others. It was the first state to extend the right to petition for the order to immediate family members and roommates. A bill that passed in the assembly in May seeks to include school workers, employers and co-workers, as well.

Many of these so-called “red flag” laws have been enacted in response to mass shootings.

The law in California was crafted in 2014 in the wake of a mass murder in Isla Vista, where six UC Santa Barbara students were shot and stabbed to death. Troubled by videos their son posted online, the killer’s parents had called the local authorities to check on him, but they never searched his apartment, which was stocked with weapons.

A few more states adopted the law after California but at least a dozen more did so after the Feb 14, 2018, shooting at a school in Parkland, Fla., where police and the FBI were warned about the shooter and failed to act.


Why did we write this story

Gun violence restraining orders are a tool that are just starting to be used by law enforcement in Stanislaus County but are also available to immediate family and roommates. The Bee felt it was important to educate the public about the restraining orders, which can help take away one of the means by which a person can harm themselves or others or prevent tragic accidents in instances of negligence.

Red flag laws are again gaining traction in response to the deaths of 31 people killed in mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, earlier this month. A bipartisan proposal by Senators Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., would create a federal grant program to encourage states to adopt the red flag laws, according to The Associated Press.

National Rifle Association spokeswoman Amy Hunter said in a statement to The Bee, “To safeguard the rights of law-abiding gun owners, Extreme Risk Protection Orders at a minimum must include strong due process protections, require treatment, and include penalties against those who make frivolous claims.”

Despite having been one of the leaders in adopting the law, less than half of California’s counties have been using the civil restraining orders, according to data from the California Department of Justice.

The San Diego City Attorney’s Office, which launched the first GVRO program in 2017 and leads the state in the number of orders obtained, aims to change that.

“Whenever I hear about a mass shooting, I ask myself, ‘Could a gun violence restraining order have prevented this tragedy?’ ” San Diego City Attorney Mara W. Elliott said in an email to The Bee. “Most often, the answer is yes — someone saw clear indicators of the shooter’s intent to harm others. Whether the threat is to a school or workplace, a partner or a stranger, or a threat of suicide, our office has found GVROs to be a powerful tool for saving lives.”

San Diego last year began training other jurisdictions in how to use gun violence restraining orders and this year was allotted $250,000 of the state budget to continue to expand that training, according to spokeswoman Hilary Nemchik.

Examples to trigger GVROs come in all forms

Elliot’s office, which petitions for the orders on behalf of San Diego Police, has obtained some 300 GVROs since starting the program, which have led to the removal of 400 firearms, including 24 assault weapons, Nemchick said.

The subjects of those orders include an elderly man in the early stages of dementia who threatened to kill his wife and neighbor because he believed they were having an affair; a man who threatened to kill his wife and their young child if she left him; and a man who, at work, praised the efficiency of the shooter who killed 58 people at a Las Vegas music festival, saying he would use the same techniques at his office if he was ever fired.

San Diego Police Lt. Ricky Radasa, who teaches the GVRO classes along with San Diego Supervising Deputy City Attorney Jeff Brooker, said officers there are trained to consider a GVRO any time they encounter “any sort of evidence that will lead to potentially violent behavior.”

Typically those are in situations in which a person is mentally ill or gravely disabled, is making threats to harm himself or others, or situations involving domestic violence or substance abuse.

A gun violence restraining order can be obtained even in the absence of an arrest, like when someone is making veiled threats.

Radasa used the example of a case involving a man who was having a relationship with a married woman. The man made comments about wanting to make the woman’s husband “suffer.”

The threat didn’t substantiate a criminal case, Radasa said, because he didn’t expressly say how he intended to make the man suffer but police had enough evidence to obtain the GVRO.

Radasa and Brooker said the orders fill the gaps in other laws designed to keep firearms out of the hands of dangerous people.

Roughly a third of San Diego’s GVROs involved people suffering from mental illness. Some of those people are put on involuntary psychiatric holds, which allows police to seize their firearms.

But Brooker said it doesn’t necessarily prevent them from buying new ones upon their release.

If a person is committed — meaning involuntarily held in a psychiatric facility for 72 hours or more — a court hearing is scheduled to determine whether that person should be barred from possessing firearms in the future, usually for a period of five years but sometimes permanently, Brooker said.

But it can take months before those hearings are adjudicated and a judge’s decision to prohibit a person from possessing guns is sent to the Department of Justice, which maintains the database for background checks.

Furthermore, just because law enforcement detains a person for a psychiatric hold doesn’t mean they will be committed at a facility, Brooker said. Some people are let go early or not committed at all because of overcrowding or a difference of opinion by a clinician, in which case the hearing might never be scheduled.

Brooker said he handled a GVRO case involving a man who police detained three times in one year for psychiatric holds but who was never involuntarily committed by mental health officials.

The man’s guns were seized each time but after being released the first two times he went out and bought more.

After the third hold, Brooker secured the GVRO, which results in notification to the Department of Justice within a day.

Case in Denair; second in Modesto

In the case of the Denair man, a GVRO likely could have been obtained prior to the shooting based on threats he’d made toward law enforcement and statements about the “big surprise” his bank was going to get because they weren’t taking him seriously regarding his claim of theft from his account, Singh said.

Singh was learning about the GVRO process when the shooting occurred.

It was fortunate no one was injured or killed and Singh wanted to ensure it didn’t happen again so he obtained the GVRO and plans to use them in the future.

While the man can’t get back the weapons that were seized, in the absence of the GVRO, he could have bought new ones because he hasn’t yet been convicted of the felonies with which he has been charged.

In court on Tuesday, Singh answered a few questions from the deputy city attorney representing him and from the judge about less restrictive alternatives he employed before seeking the order. Singh said he repeatedly talked to the man about getting help and offered mental health services but the man refused to acknowledge he had a problem.

The man had the opportunity to argue his case as well but didn’t show up for court.

Last month, Modesto Police Detective Mike Hicks got the second GVRO in the county against a military veteran who’d made repeated threats to harm himself.

He was involuntarily committed on a psychiatric hold and one firearm was subsequently seized, but Hicks took the extra step of securing the GVRO to ensure the man can’t buy more while the order is in place.

Hicks and another detective on Friday will attend one of San Diego’s trainings and, in turn, train others in the department on how to use the gun violence restraining orders.

Deputy Singh said he plans to do the same.

The Sacramento Bee contributed to this story.


How gun violence restraining orders work:

Law enforcement can get emergency GVROs by contacting an on-call judge to obtain the order and immediately seize weapons from the person who had been deemed a danger to themselves or others. If the threat is not imminent a temporary order can be obtained by both law enforcement and immediate family or roommates of that person by filing the proper documents at Stanislaus Superior Court. Both orders last 21 days and a hearing is scheduled so that the petitioner and the respondent can give testimony before a judge decides whether to extend the order for up to a year.

If that order is granted the respondent can request another hearing one time during that year to argue why the order should be removed, but must prove that circumstances have changed. For example, Brooker said people who are the subjects of GVROs in San Diego due to negligence have successfully argued to have the order removed after completing gun safety courses and purchasing gun safes.

The petitioner can also request the order be renewed at the end of the year but must provide evidence a threat still exists.

While the order is in place, the subject of that order cannot possess or purchase any guns, ammunition or magazines and must surrender all firearms to law enforcement or sell them to or store them with a licensed gun dealer within 24 hours of being served. If they do not surrender the weapons they are in violation of the order and can be charged with a crime or fined and have their weapons seized by law enforcement.

Erin has been covering breaking news and crime at The Modesto Bee since 2010. She is a Humboldt State graduate and resides in Oakdale.