Viewpoints

California has laws to disarm domestic abusers. Why don’t we enforce them?

Watch scenes from Tara O’Sullivan’s memorial service

Thousands pay their respects to fallen officer Tara O'Sullivan at Bayside Adventure Church in Roseville on Thursday, June 27, 2019.
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Thousands pay their respects to fallen officer Tara O'Sullivan at Bayside Adventure Church in Roseville on Thursday, June 27, 2019.

Officer Tara O’Sullivan was gunned down after only one year on the job. Her murder is a devastating loss for her family and community. It is also a tragic end to her chosen path of serving others.

Early reports indicate the suspect had a history of domestic violence that may have prevented him from ever having a gun to fire.

We all know domestic violence is dangerous for the victims themselves. But abusers also hurt family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, law enforcement and others. The situation becomes even more dangerous and lethal when firearms are involved. Abused women are five times more likely to be killed if their abuser owns a firearm. Domestic violence assaults involving a gun are 12 times more likely to end in death than assaults with other weapons or bodily force.

All over California, thousands of domestic abusers who are prohibited by law from possessing guns are still armed.

In fact, according to the California Department of Justice, as of Jan. 1, there were 23,222 prohibited people in the Armed and Prohibited Persons System, a database that identifies individuals who have purchased a gun and are prohibited from firearms possession. Even more troubling, domestic violence victim advocates are reporting an increase in the number of survivors who have been threatened by an abusive partner who has a firearm.

Opinion

What can we do to protect these victims and decrease the risk for law enforcement and others?

We can start by implementing laws that prohibit firearm possession by people who have committed or threatened violence. Among other things, California law allows victims to petition for civil restraining orders addressing domestic violence that would block abusers from owning firearms and ammunition. In addition, California’s Gun Violence Restraining Order law allows family members and law enforcement to petition to remove gun access from a person in crisis who poses a danger to themselves or others. The criminal and mental health codes also provide numerous remedies to protect victims and restrain individuals who may cause harm from accessing firearms.

Holding those who are violent accountable with the tools our legal system gives us is not easy, but it’s critical to preventing tragedies like the loss of Officer O’Sullivan. This work is difficult and time-consuming, and it requires coordination, training and resources.

Robyn Thomas(1).png

Restraining orders need to be more accessible to those who need protection, and it is important to ensure courts hold

review hearings

in domestic violence cases, as required by California Rules of Court, to effectively carry out the relinquishment of firearms. Similarly, courts should follow the provisions enacted by California voters in 2016 via

Proposition 63

, which provides procedures to

ensure firearms relinquishment

occurs post-conviction.



The possibility of lethality demands immediacy: As soon as practical after the court determines a person is prohibited from having access to firearms, we need to do what we can to prevent that person from continuing to possess or being able to purchase firearms.

Finally, we must continue to work on developing local protocols for identifying those subject to these restrictions and steps that can be taken when responding to a domestic violence call or other situations where a suspect may be armed and dangerous. We need to support local jurisdictions to develop specialized law enforcement teams that can safely notify individuals subject to these orders that they must turn over their firearms or, alternatively, safely seize guns and ammunition at the scene.

Enacting laws is a first step, not the last. To get guns out of the hands of those who may commit violence, to support victims and the many good people who try to help them, it’s on us to enforce the laws that will stop more tragedies.

Robyn Thomas is the executive director of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

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