Virginia Tech. Aurora. Sandy Hook. These and other mass shootings produce a familiar pattern: nightmarish tragedy, expressions of condolences mixed with promises for stricter gun laws, fervent opposition to any gun prohibitions beyond the status quo, political inaction, rinse, repeat.
Gun control advocates are devising new measures that could decrease the likelihood of mass shootings and other firearm-related casualties, and appeal to a broad-enough slice of the political spectrum for new laws to pass. Gun violence restraining orders (GVROs) are one such promising avenue that could save lives, according to an article published this week in the journal Behavioral Sciences and the Law.
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GVROs permit family members and intimate partners to petition a court to deny the possession or purchase of a firearm by an individual exhibiting dangerous or violent behavior. Currently, gun ownership restrictions generally apply to two groups, the mentally ill and criminals. This sort of prohibition must be triggered by an extreme event, such as an involuntary psychiatric commitment or a violent crime. Before such an event, "family members, intimate partners, or others often observe a pattern of dangerous behavior," note the researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the University of California, Davis. These warning signs are better predictors of violence than mental illness diagnoses.
In 2014, California passed a GVRO law, the first in the nation to allow relatives of a potentially dangerous individual to seek temporary gun seizures in court. The bill, Assembly Bill No. 1014, emerged in the wake of the deadly Isla Vista mass shooting in Santa Barbara, which left seven people dead including the killer. The law takes effect in January 1, 2016.
Similar laws are also already in place in Indiana, Connecticut and Texas, but each of these states only allow law enforcement to remove firearms from a potentially dangerous individual, placing the burden on police officers to detect and identify such people. This has led to sporadic and inconsistent implementation of the law. In the case of Indiana, which permits law enforcement to temporarily seize guns without a warrant, gun removal is invoked to prevent suicides rather than violence, and even then the use of the law was limited to one county, the study's authors explain.
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Last month, the Delaware state senate also discussed a similar measure, SB 83, that would temporarily ban the possession of a firearm by anyone subject to a restraining order. Former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords delivered brief remarks urging the bill's passage, insisting "dangerous people with guns are a threat to women," as reported by The News Journal. The National Rifle Association (NRA) Institute for Legislative Action calls the legislation a violation of due process and Second Amendment rights.
The NRA-ILA also opposed the passage of Assembly Bill 1014 in California. "This bill's low evidentiary standard and lack of a mechanism for individuals to present their own defense before being deprived of their constitutional rights fail to meet American standards for due process of law," the organization wrote last July.
The study's authors suggest, however, that GVROs can be effective in reducing firearms deaths. The Isla Vista rampage and the mass shooting in Tuscon, Ariz., that wounded Giffords and claimed six lives are two examples of events that may have been prevented by GVROs. "In both cases, those closest to the shooters identified dangerous behaviors, expressed concern, and took concrete actions to intervene and address a risk they correctly perceived," the authors write.
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Despite their high media profile, mass shootings don't contribute much to overall firearm deaths. GVROs can also be useful by enlisting families to identify potentially homicidal or suicidal behavior. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 33,636 deaths caused by firearms in the United States in 2013, out of which 11,208 were homicides and 21,175 were suicides.