Felons, the dangerously mentally ill, perpetrators of domestic violence — these people have not only demonstrated their unfitness to own a weapon, they’ve been granted due process to contest the charges or claims against them. There is no arbitrary state action. There is no collective punishment. There is, rather, an individual, constitutional state process, and the result of that process is a set of defined consequences that includes revoking the right to gun ownership.
But what of mass shootings? Just like the Parkland shooter, they tend to give off warning signals. Like Nikola Cruz, they issue generalized threats, kill and dismember animals, and exhibit fascination with mass killings. But how do you deny them access to guns? Though people can report their concerns to authorities, sometimes those authorities fail or have limited tools to deal with the emerging danger.
What if, however, there was an evidence-based process for temporarily denying a troubled person access to guns? What if this process empowered family members and others close to a potential shooter, allowing them to “do something” after they “see something” and “say something”? I’ve written that the best line of defense against mass shootings is an empowered, vigilant citizenry. There is a method that has the potential to empower citizens even more, when it’s carefully and properly implemented.
This is where a gun-violence restraining order, or GVRO and be useful.
While there are various versions of these laws working their way through the states (California passed a GVRO statute in 2014, and it went into effect in 2016), broadly speaking they permit a spouse, parent, sibling, or person living with a troubled individual to petition a court for an order enabling law enforcement to temporarily take that individual’s guns right away. A well-crafted GVRO should contain the following elements (“petitioners” are those who seek the order, “the respondent” is its subject):
- It should limit those who have standing to seek the order to a narrowly defined class of people (close relatives, those living with the respondent);
- It should require petitioners to come forward with clear, convincing, admissible evidence that the respondent is a significant danger to himself or others;
- It should grant the respondent an opportunity to contest the claims against him;
- In the event of an emergency, ex parte order (an order granted before the respondent can contest the claims), a full hearing should be scheduled quickly — preferably within 72 hours; and
- The order should lapse after a defined period of time unless petitioners can come forward with clear and convincing evidence that it should remain in place.
The concept of the GVRO is not much different from the restraining orders that are common in family law. It will also be more effective than dealing with current mental-health adjudications. GVROs require that the order come from people close to the respondent and that they come forward with real evidence (e.g. sworn statements, screenshots of social-media posts, copies of journal entries) minimizes the chance of bad-faith claims.
The great benefit of the GVRO is that it provides citizens with options other than relying on, say, the FBI. As the FBI, it did not respond appropriately to a timely warning from a “person close to Nikolas Cruz.” According the FBI, that person provided “information about Cruz’s gun ownership, desire to kill people, erratic behavior, and disturbing social media posts, as well as the potential of him conducting a school shooting.”
That would have been enough to grant a GVRO.
Just since 2015, the Charleston church shooter, the Orlando nightclub shooter, the Sutherland Springs church shooter, and the Parkland school shooter each happened after federal authorities missed chances to stop them. For those keeping score, that’s four horrific mass shootings in four years where federal systems failed, at a cost of more than 100 lives.
In other words, proper application of existing policies and procedures could have saved lives, but the people in the federal government failed. And they keep failing. So let’s empower different people. Let’s empower the people who have the most to lose, and let’s place accountability on the lowest possible level of government: the local judges who consistently and regularly adjudicate similar claims in the context of family and criminal law.
“Advocates for GVROs have been mostly clustered on the left, but there is nothing inherently leftist about the concept. After all, the GVRO is consistent with and recognizes both the inherent right of self-defense and the inherent right of due process. It is not collective punishment. It is precisely targeted.” –David French.
As was intended, a vigilant citizenry would be more effective in stopping mass shootings than the allegedly “common sense” gun-control measures debated after every massacre.