Crime & Justice

LA city attorney calls on family members of unstable firearm owners to seek new gun restraining order

LA City Attorney Mike Feuer wants to train attorneys to help relatives seeking restraining orders on relatives' guns.
LA City Attorney Mike Feuer wants to train attorneys to help relatives seeking restraining orders on relatives' guns.
Frank Stoltze, KPCC

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Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer Thursday said he would provide training to lawyers on how to help families seize the guns of relatives who may be mentally ill and violent.

Under a new California law, effective January 1, family members can ask a judge for a gun violence restraining order that would force relatives to temporarily give up their firearms for 21 days. The order can be extended for a full year after a hearing involving the relative.

Police can also seek such an order, which is similar to a restraining order in a domestic violence case where a judge can require someone to stay away from someone else, even if they have not been convicted of a crime.

But Feuer aimed his message at relatives who may be best positioned to know whether someone is a danger to themselves or someone else.

"I'm imploring people to take advantage of this opportunity to stave off violence," he said at a news conference at L.A.'s City Hall. 

"I would much rather see members of families err on the side of seeking the order than second-guessing what they should have done in retrospect," said Feuer. He noted a judge can always deny the request.

Feuer and other city attorneys around the state have no legal role when family members decide to go to court. But he said he wants to help, and hopes his training will be utilized by pro-bono lawyers willing to help families for free. It's scheduled for February 6.

"Standing by and doing nothing in the wake of these shootings, how could we do that?" he said.

The law in part was inspired by the 2014 mass shooting in Isla Vista, near U.C. Santa Barbara, where Elliot Rodger killed six people and wounded 14 others before fatally shooting himself. Santa Barbara Sheriff's deputies had checked on his mental condition after his therapist and parents warned them he was mentally unstable and a possible threat.

"He laughed at the sheriff's who came out..and could do nothing," said Bob Weiss, referring to online posts by Rodger mocking law enforcement. Weiss' daughter Veronika, 19, was killed in the shooting.

"All of this could have been prevented" with the new law, Weiss said.

Under the law, a judge must find a "substantial likelihood" that someone is a danger to themselves or others to issue a temporary gun violence restraining order, according to Feuer. To win a yearlong order, the standard is higher - "clear and convincing" evidence. 

Judges may consider a variety of factors in making a determination on a person's firearm, Feuer said, including:

Guns rights advocates have expressed concerns the new law could be abused and violates the Second Amendment's protections for gun owners. 

“We think this just misses the mark and may create a situation where law-abiding gun owners are put in jeopardy," Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California, told the Associated Press last year.

Feuer noted abusing the law for retaliation or other purposes is a misdemeanor criminal violation.

The push for a gun violence restraining order for families began after the Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut shootings that left 20 school children dead, said Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence. He praised California's decision to become the first state to enact one.

"This is really exciting time for us in the national movement," he said. Horwitz is part of The Consortium for Risk Based Firearm Policy, which seeks evidence based solutions to gun violence.

"Most people with mental illness will never be violent towards others, but are at an increased risk of self harm," he said.

But there are times when behavior — not a diagnosis — can indicate future risk for gun violence, he said. They include previous acts of violence and substance abuse — factors California judges will use in determining whether to issue a gun violence retraining order.

"Intervention prior to bad things happening is key," he said. Connecticut and Indiana allow police to seek such an order. California is the first to allow family member to go to a judge.

"Let's face it, who knows you better than your family. They see the issues first," he said. Gun violence can be avoided without the longterm stigma or complications of criminal charges or involuntary commitment, Horwitz added.

Asked how often he expects the law to be used by police or relatives in Los Angeles, Feuer said he didn't know: "It's a new law."

He said when police seek a court order, seizure of weapons "could happen within an hour."

The Los Angeles Police Department is still working out protocols for responding to court orders won by relatives, Feuer said.