The Gun Violence Restraining Order: Necessity or Over-Prevention?

Families rallying for gun control. Source: http://imgarcade.com/1/pro-gun-control-protests/
Families rallying for gun control. Source: Imgkid.com

On September 30th, 2014, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill titled “Gun Violence Restraining Order” (AB 1014), making California the first state to permit such a law. This bill allows Californians to petition to revoke firearms temporarily from relatives whom they fear might be mentally unstable or a threat to the public. Assemblywoman Barbara Skinner and assemblyman Das Williams proposed this bill after the massacre at the University of California, Santa Barbara in the spring of 2014, during which Elliot Rodgers went on a shooting rampage and killed six people and wounded thirteen—a tragedy that occurred despite previous convictions that he was mentally unstable and prone to violence. Consequently, this law aims to reduce the possibility of mass shootings, major gun violence, and domestic physical abuse.

However, the passing of this law has drawn both vigorous criticism and support. Critics argue that this law can potentially violate the right of law-abiding gun owners to own arms, while supporters argue that it takes crucial steps in preventing the further loss of innocent lives due to gun violence. Although this law is well-intended, it lacks concrete definitions and policies, making it difficult to implement. While California certainly should have a law with such protective aims, there should be more definite mechanisms for identifying people who are threatening to others, such as background checks, accurate psychiatric evaluations, and personal history.

AB 1014 allows firearms to be revoked from subjects on the basis that there is a “reasonable cause to believe that the subject of the petition poses an immediate and present danger.” However, the bill states no clear and standard method by which officials can judge if someone is dangerous and threatening. Thus, the law could be easily abused and manipulated. Additionally, the fact that the law enables judges to decide upon someone’s sanity and degree of violent tendencies is problematic because the judges themselves might not have extensive psychiatric knowledge. Consequently, the judges will need the professional aid of psychiatrists to determine if someone is threatening to the safety of others and whether their right to bear firearms should be revoked. Unfortunately, even certified mental health professionals cannot always accurately judge signs of violent tendencies. Elliot Rodgers, of the Santa Barbara massacre, was put under psychiatric and police evaluation just days before his shooting spree, but ended up being discharged back into the public.

The law also states that firearms can be removed for only the temporary period of 21 days with a possible extension of one year, which does not account for the possibility that a person could commit shootings after the restriction has been removed. The law also does not specify what actions, if any, should be taken regarding the person who is believed to be violent and mentally unstable—Will they be placed under surveillance? Will they be admitted to psychiatric evaluations? Will they be left to their free devices?

Furthermore, if the citizen whose firearms are revoked temporarily by a judge was not mentally unstable or dangerous, this new law may also infringe upon the citizen’s Second Amendment rights. The Second Amendment of the United States Constitution grants every American citizen who is not mentally ill and previously convicted the right to bear arms. However, some supporters of AB 1014 argue that it is better to “over-prevent” than “under-prevent” gun violence. Although this statement is reasonable, it still leaves the question of how this law can “over-prevent” without infringing on the rights of people without mental instabilities and criminal records to bear arms.

There already exist laws that prevent mentally unstable people from owning firearms (California, as of 2013, sets a 5-year prohibition for “any person taken into custody as a danger to self or others, assessed, and admitted to a mental health facility”). However, as demonstrated by the U.C. Santa Barbara Massacre and countless other acts of gun violence, these laws are not always effective due to the inherent difficulties in identifying those who potentially pose a threat to others. The passing of AB 1014 is that of yet another law that runs the risk of ostracizing people with mental illness and lacks a clear and definite mechanism for identifying subjects who are threatening to others. Thus, even though AB 1014 was developed with the good intention of saving innocent lives by preventing gun violence, it lacks a clear way of being successfully implemented. This law may become successful with future revisions aiming to articulate a thorough set of guidelines for discovering those who intend to inflict violence onto others.