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California’s ‘red-flag’ law can help prevent mass shootings. SF must use it more

Illustration by Mia Carson

By Catherine Stefani and David Chiu

Catherine Stefani is a San Francisco Supervisor representing District 2, and David Chiu is the San Francisco City Attorney.

In only the last week and a half, at least 65 Americans were killed or injured in eight mass shootings, heinous acts of violence that are both totally preventable and unique to the United States. Indeed, we began drafting this op-ed after the tragic mass shooting in Buffalo, New York., and before we were even finished, there were new mass shootings in Chicago, Laguna Woods, and—most recently—at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, in which at least 19 students and two teachers died.

The frequency and diversity of these unbelievably tragic shootings should prompt you to think to yourself, “It could happen here.” It could happen in San Francisco—because it has. 

Nearly five years ago, on June 14, 2017, Jimmy Lam murdered three of his co-workers at a UPS facility in San Francisco. As we approach the anniversary of that terrible day—our city’s most recent mass-shooting event—we must recommit to addressing the scourge of gun violence. 

As Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said, “Shootings are not acts of nature, like hurricanes or tornadoes.” We have the power to keep our communities safe, but we have to take action. The best first step is to make use of a tool we already have. 

In 2016, the California legislature enacted a “red flag” law. Since then, 18 other states have followed suit. This legislation allowed for gun violence restraining orders, or GVROs. 

GVROs allow law enforcement, family members and community members to seek civil restraining orders against individuals who have threatened them or pose a danger to themselves or others. These restraining orders prevent an individual from possessing or acquiring firearms for a period of up to five years and allow police to seize any firearms the individual possesses. They are designed to address circumstances like the one in Buffalo, where the suspect showed the kind of warning signs that warrant a GVRO well in advance of his violent act.

Unfortunately, San Francisco lags behind other cities in using this tool to prevent gun violence. Counties like Santa Clara and San Diego seek hundreds of GVROs each year—more than ten times the number filed in San Francisco. Despite our low filing rate, gun violence in San Francisco has become a rising concern.

Gun violence prevention laws work. Californians support commonsense gun control, and as a result, we have among the lowest per capita firearm death rates in the country, but our state’s laws are increasingly under attack by a federal judiciary stacked with right-wing judges. Just this month, Trump appointees on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that California’s age restriction on purchasing semiautomatic rifles was unconstitutional. 

Yes, what happened in Buffalo, New York, could happen here in San Francisco. There, Payton Gendron, an 18-year-old white supremacist, made violent threats in high school and had been subject to a mental health evaluation. He was nonetheless allowed to legally purchase the semiautomatic rifle he used to murder 10 innocent victims in a grocery store. This is outrageous.

While the data is still preliminary, early studies have shown that GVROs lower suicide rates and prevent mass shootings. Just this past year in San Francisco, on top of their busy caseloads, several attorneys in the city attorney’s office successfully obtained GVROs against people who have threatened family members, co-workers, and themselves. The city attorney sought GVROs in cases where the SFPD seized firearms from a person whose family reported erratic behavior, delusional statements and narcotic and alcohol abuse, a person who had previously attempted suicide and whose family was concerned would make another attempt, and a person who was throwing heavy objects onto the sidewalk from a multi-story apartment and possessed ammunition-manufacturing materials and explosives. 

GVROs can’t stop every instance of gun violence. But given the shocking events of the past two weeks and our obvious mental health crisis, it is almost certain that we could be doing more to take guns out of the hands of people who are a danger to themselves or others. 

We need to educate the public about GVROs, train our police officers on how to investigate these cases and dedicate more attorneys to seek restraining orders in court. Together with dedicated police officers, an augmented team at the city attorney’s office could provide citywide training to officers and citizens on GVROs and file GVROs in every case where one was warranted. 

In San Diego, the city attorney there has done just that, creating an entire team devoted solely to obtaining GVROs, with attorneys working alongside police officers to collect and present evidence in court. It is no wonder that San Diego leads the state in obtaining GVROs and seizing weapons. 

All too frequently, it becomes clear after the fact that there were plenty of warning signs prior to a mass shooting. In 2014, Elliot Rodger killed six people near UC Santa Barbara before turning the gun on himself. Before the massacre, he displayed such concerning behavior that his therapist contacted the police, who, based on the laws at the time, weren’t able to seize his weapon. 

In October 2019, Jose DeJesus Rodriguez shot and killed his 20-year-old girlfriend, Valeria Villagomez at her home near Lowell High School. According to loved ones, the murder occurred after months of escalating abuse. 

These are exactly the kind of “red flags” that GVROs are intended to address.

Of course, the process must include judicial hearings where evidence is presented and due process afforded. GVROs are our ability to act on these red flags and intervene before violence occurs when an individual’s words or actions indicate they pose a significant risk to themselves or others, as Gendron, Rodger and Rodriguez did. 

The 2017 shooting at San Francisco’s UPS facility occurred even though the city no longer has even a single gun store, and local laws restricting gun ownership are some of the strictest in the nation. We are not immune from hate, mental illness or the violence of semiautomatic weapons. 

Failing to intervene is planning for disaster. We must do more to combat white supremacy, to treat mental illness and to give young people reasons to hope instead of hate. But we must also take advantage of GVROs—a tool already available to us—to keep guns out of the hands of people we know pose a danger to themselves or others.

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