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Guns and Restraining Orders

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Guns and Restraining Orders

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This story was produced as a project for the 2019 California Fellowship.

Guns and Restraining Orders
Making Contact
Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Despite the recent increase in mass shootings in the United States, the majority of gun injuries and deaths are in fact a result of suicides, homicides, accidental shootings, and intimate partner violence. In this documentary, we hear the story of one woman’s experience of domestic violence, and how some Californians are working to prevent harmful and deadly shootings.

This program was produced as a project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2019 California Fellowship.

Image: An altar in front of the Isla Vista deli where Christopher Ross Michaels-Martinez was shot in 2014. Photo Credit: Monica Lopez

Warning: Contains sensitive language, this version is not suitable for public radio. Please find clean version here: www.radioproject.org/stations

Featuring:

  • Sofia García, (pseudonym) survivor of intimate partner violence
  • Richard Martinez, Survivor Network at Everytown for Gun Safet
  • Kendra Thomas, family law attorney and Trustee with Los Angeles County Bar Association’s Domestic Violence Legal Services Project
  • Mara Elliott, San Diego City Attorney
  • Jacqui Irwin, CA Assembly member, 44th District
  • Phil Ting, CA Assembly member, 19th District.


Episode Transcript

Narrator

I’m Monica Lopez. This week on Making Contact…

Richard Martinez

The reality is in the past two years Las Vegas was the deadliest lone gunman shooting in the history of the United States. Parkland was the deadliest high school shooting in the history of the United States. Pittsburgh was the deadliest attack on American Jews in the history of the United States. Sutherland Springs was the deadliest house of worship shooting in the history of the United States. And now El Paso is the deadliest attack on American Latinos in the history of the United States. And what have they done? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

 

Narrator

Despite the recent increase in mass shootings, the majority of gun injuries and deaths are in fact are a result of suicides, homicides, accidental shootings, and domestic violence.

 

Sofia García

You know I was young, single. I met him at a bar, and I approached him surprisingly.

 

Narrator

Sofia Garcia met her ex-husband in her early 20’s.

 

Sofia García 

I found him attractive. I approached him and we immediately started dating and I was like it was a whirlwind relationship. I think looking back it was like it was like that my Prince Charming. He like swept me off my feet. I mean he said all the right things, made me feel really good. It’s like wining and dining and you know it was just, you know he was like bending over backwards for me I felt like more like most of the time. And that that was kind of like the experience in the initial relationship.

 

Narrator

But it wasn’t long before Sofia’s partner revealed a darker side of his personality.

 

Sofia García

Like a charming monster… I mean people loved him. I remember people telling us you guys you’re like the power couple. Your life is just like perfect the way he treats you the way he loves you. And I remember like on social media he would professes undying love to me, and it was like I was the best thing that ever happened to him. But it’s like behind closed doors I was like the worst that ever happened. He would have some angry outburst but nothing of caution like nothing that really alarmed me. I would say the very first time that it was something alarming was when I found out that I was going to have my child. And I remember him getting physical with me for the first time or he threw me on the bed, and he said, “Kill the F’n baby.” Those were his words.

 

Narrator

Sofia is one of 25 percent of US women who experience some form of intimate partner violence in her lifetime. Soon after this incident, she found herself in a pattern of violence, reconciliation, and escalation.

 

Sofia García

I mean I remember coming home from having my son and you know you’re exhausted from having a baby being in a hospital and I remember I plopped myself on the couch and I guess he couldn’t wake me up or I don’t know but I he was holding the baby and I remember he kicked me. This is day one from having come home from the hospital and he kicked me to walk wake me up and that’s what startled me. He’s like wake up the baby’s hungry.

 

It progressed to he’s angry over something. Baby’s crying. He’s tired. He wants to go to sleep. Something. There was almost no progression to his anger. It was like I didn’t understand that you know. And I think the worst one was when I remember how I had my son my son on my chest. I can’t tell you what the argument was about. But I remember he pulled out one of his guns. He had an arsenal of weapons and I remember he took it out. I had my son on my chest, and he pointed it at my head, and he said I’m going to fucking kill you tonight. And I remember you had my son my son had a onesie and I ran out of the house.

 

Narrator

Sofia’s ex-husband put the gun down and told her to stop. He apologized and said that he couldn’t believe what he’d just done.

 

Sofia García

You know what. People always say like why don’t women leave these situations you know and it’s like I would have never thought I would have been in that situation like ever ever would I ever think that I would be in that situation. But they deplete you of your self-esteem and who you are. And. You know. Yeah that was hard. And I remember coming back and I remember at that time I hadn’t told anybody my story. I was like nobody needs to hear this. This is between us. You know and a am the only person I reached out to was his mom. And his mom’s response was, I think you have postpartum depression.

 

Narrator

On average, it takes roughly seven attempts to leave before a survivor permanently exits an abusive relationship. And like so many others Sofia stayed, and tried to make the marriage work.

 

Sofia García

My cultural background is that you stay with the person you’re with for the rest of your life. That’s whoever you have children with or whoever you’re married with you just tough it out. And that’s almost like the success like we’ve been married 30 40 years you know. But there’s a lot of stuff that has happened in those years you know that most women shouldn’t have to deal with.

 

And I think that I mean whether it’s based on being feminine or your cultural background like I think that we need to let people know that you don’t have to stay tied to these situations.

 

Narrator

If her partner has access to a gun, a woman in an abusive relationship is five times more likely to be killed by her partner. But there are ways to leave the relationship and put legal protections in place with restraining orders. Two that could be used in situations like Sofia’s are the comprehensive Domestic Violence Restraining Order and a much more specific law, the Gun Violence Restraining Order.

 

But it can take time for people who’ve endured violent relationships to get up the nerve and the money to leave.

           

Kendra Thomas

You can’t force someone to go through a process they’re not ready for.

 

Narrator

Kendra Thomas practices family law and is a trustee for the L-A County Bar’s Domestic Violence Legal Services Project, which offers legal aid for victims of violence.

 

She’s also Sofia Garcia’s attorney.

 

The legal project helps people with their paperwork for restraining orders, to prepare for their hearings, and help with interacting with law enforcement.

 

Kendra Thomas

The domestic violence restraining order actually restrains people from being able to come somewhere, being able to be within a certain number of feet. You can also get financial orders. You can get child custody orders. You can get support orders. So, you can go in on just a domestic violence hearing and if you’ve made the appropriate request you can walk out with orders that are very encompassing. We juxtapose that against a gun violence restraining order, which really the sole purpose of that is to keep guns away. So, the people who can apply for a gun violence restraining order… the window of people is much more limited.

 

Narrator

Because the law was intended to prevent a shooting from happening, only Immediate family and members of the same household who are more likely to spot concerning behavior as well as law enforcement are allowed to apply for a Gun Violence Restraining Order.

 

When Sofia was living with her ex-husband that kind of Restraining Order didn’t exist. So, she had to look for other options.

 

Sofia García 

I realized I’m like well he treats me like crap. He has no respect for me. He beats me. He tells me he’s gonna kill me. And I remember thinking about my son and just thinking like I couldn’t raise him like that. I felt like he was the one that deserved a better life. And if I wanted to raise him to be a good man, I couldn’t keep him in a home where he was watching this happen. And what finally did it for me was looking in his phone and finding out that there was another woman. And realizing that all the savings and money that we had supposedly to buy a new home was all gone. And I left. I left.

 

Narrator

In California, almost half of all violent deaths in 2017 were gun related. That’s according to a report released by the California Department of Public Health. That year, guns were used in over 70 percent of all California homicides, and in nearly 40 percent of suicides.

 

There are several restraining orders that prohibit someone from owning or possessing firearms. But to get the order, you have to wait for a crime to be committed. That includes cases of intimate partner violence.

 

Gun Violence Restraining Orders, which are much more limited in scope, are designed to keep shootings from happening in the first place.

 

The law went into effect in California on January 1, 2016. But they weren’t being used as frequently as some lawmakers had hoped.

 

Assemblymember Phil Ting sponsored a bill that would expand the scope of who could file for a gun violence restraining order.

 

 

Assemblymember Phil Ting

There was a fear when this was first introduced that there would be millions of gun violence restraining orders issued and really that gun owners would be targeted unfairly and at this point after three years we’ve seen only 600 gun violence restraining orders and then one of the reasons we want to expand the bill is frankly we’ve seen law enforcement unfortunately be slow to adopt at this point. Of the two counties I represent, San Francisco’s issued one, and San Mateo has issued zero.

 

Narrator

The original Gun Violence Restraining Order law only allows members of the same household, immediate family, and law enforcement to file for a GVRO.

 

Assemblymember Phil Ting

Cops can’t be everywhere. Law enforcement can’t be everywhere. If a co-worker feels concerned about an individual and they hear about them owning guns and they have concerns that the gun may be used inappropriately, they can take power back in their own hands so that they don’t have to go to work in fear of getting shot. Unfortunately, where we’ve seen so many other workplaces get shot up. Same with a teacher. Same with the principal. If they’re hearing behavior or watching behavior that is concerning, they can take the power back in their own hands. They don’t have to wait for law enforcement to go do something. They can go to court. They can get a Gun Violence Restraining order.

 

Narrator

Assemblymember Ting sponsored the same bill in 2018, which was vetoed by then-Governor Jerry Brown. The fact that Gun Violence Restraining Orders have been underutilized statewide has not gone unnoticed. And after mass shootings at Borderline Bar and Grill and a Garlic Festival… State lawmakers submitted about a half dozen bills in 2019 to expand, refine, and promote their use.

 

Assemblymember Jackie Irwin represents Ventura and parts of LA County.

 

 

 

Assemblymember Jacqui Irwin

Thousand Oaks right here in the 44th District is one of those that experienced gun violence. So right after the shooting at borderline, I spoke to community members and our local sheriff’s department and I asked what Could California do that it isn’t doing already.

 

Narrator

Irwin introduced three gun-related bills. Right now, GVRO’s are good for up to one year. One bill would extend its effect up to five years. Another bill would promote law enforcement education about the order by requiring police and sheriff’s departments to institutionalize their own gun violence restraining order policies.

 

Assemblymember Jacqui Irwin

We want to make sure that these that these policies are decided at the local level so that you take into account the values of the community and their relationship with the police department or the sheriff’s department. And that you really have a policy that’s tailored for your specific community.

 

Narrator

The third bill creates a pilot program with four county sheriff’s departments to help eliminate the backlog on the Armed and Prohibited Persons System, or APPS database. It’s administered through state attorney general Xavier Becerra’s office.

 

Assemblymember Jacqui Irwin

The APPS program is basically the prohibited possessor list and it is felons or domestic violence abusers that are prohibited from having guns. And the attorney general has been working very hard over the last number of years to remove guns from those people. And what we would basically like them to do which is gather all the stakeholder groups and discuss what the best way is to implement this how to work with the attorney general to get the list of prohibited possessors. How to figure out where people are currently living and try to help the attorney general reduce the number of reduce the backlog on that list. And so that comes with the $3 million-dollar budget allocation. And the three million dollars will be distributed to the four counties and then we want to make sure that we get really good data back on what the best ways are to remove guns from those that shouldn’t have them.

 

Narrator

According to the Attorney General’s Office, there are over 23 thousand people on that list who are not supposed to have guns.

 

But because the legal solutions are just that… tied up in the workings of cops and courts… it can lead to backlogs not just at the state level, but in local jurisdictions as well.

 

In one domestic violence case, attorney Kendra Thomas faced a situation where the other party was mentally unstable and directed his anger at her office…

 

Kendra Thomas

It led to us being actually included on the restraining order. It resulted in threats to take me out personally to come shoot up the office. And believe it or not that was actually a very difficult situation to navigate because a) the law doesn’t necessarily apply to one’s attorney or advocate and, b) it’s very difficult. Or we found it very difficult at the time to get the police to take the situation seriously because they’re so inundated with restraining orders and with violations of restraining orders that it actually got to the point where some of the information we were given about enforcing the restraining order was a, well let’s see if it escalates. there’s a lot of gray area when you’re not just dealing with the restraining order, which we need to remember is really just a piece of paper. There’s also once you have the piece of paper the enforcement of it and what to do when you have someone who’s not swayed by the fact that a judge has made certain orders.

 

Narrator

One such case happened in the Spring of 2019. Brenda Renteria, a mother who’d obtained a Domestic Violence Restraining Order went to the Hawthorne Police Department for a custody exchange. When she approached the station entrance to pick up her toddler, the baby’s father Jacob Munn allegedly ran from the parking lot and fatally shot her with a shotgun.

 

In Sofia’s case, six months after the first restraining order was issued, the court learned that Sofia’s husband still had access to another gun. The judge ordered him to turn it in immediately.

 

Sofia García

I mean I think sometimes we put the emphasis on the police through the courts or that there is this system out there that’s going to track all of this. I think there is a breakdown in those systems in that they’re not communicating. It’s very hard to keep track of you know who has guns where these guns are how they’re being utilized. And I and I think that this is part of the reason why we have so much gun violence and such access to these weapons that can be deadly and harmful.

 

Narrator

You’re listening to Guns and Restraining Orders on Making Contact. This program is offered for free to radio stations around the world. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram, our handle is Making underscore Contact. And now back to Guns and Restraining Orders.

 

Narrator

In 2012, Sofia Garcia escaped from a physically and emotionally violent relationship.

 

Sofia García

I left. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t easy. I mean he was threatening my family. He called my sister and my mom and threatened to kill them. He said he was going to come after me. And I think at that point. I was still trying to engage with him, and I don’t know why but I remember that’s how I ended up at the clinic.

 

Narrator

The clinic is part of the LA County Bar’s Domestic Violence Legal Services Project.

 

Sofia García 

This is gonna end up a tragedy is what I felt like. And I remember going to the to the clinic and trying to file a domestic violence restraining order. And I remember walking out. I probably walked out three or four times. I was like I can’t do it. I was like I’m not going to do this like you know there’s no way like what. I mean this is who do who does restraining orders? like well it’s not me it’s not my situation. And I remember walking in, and I remember the director. She grabbed him grabbed my leg and she said let me tell you something. The last girl who walked in like you is dead. And that was like I mean it was it shattered me. I was like How am I in this situation? And she was the other person the second person who told me, I want you to know that none of this is your fault. Just hearing those words when you’ve been emotionally beat down and you know feeling like you’re the cause of the abuse or the threats. I’m the one that broke up my family. Like I was like the little ray of hope that I needed like… keep going on.

 

Narrator

When an abusive partner has access to firearms, the likelihood that the victim will be killed by their partner is five times greater. And even with a Restraining Order in place, it can take some time before the abusive partner surrenders their guns and ammunition.

 

San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott

It could be a very long period of time and a day can make a big difference in the life of somebody who is fearful of someone who has access to guns and appears potentially harmful.

 

Narrator

San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott is the most prolific filer of Gun Violence Restraining Orders in the state of California.

 

San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott

With domestic violence, if it’s being proven as a crime that’s going to take some time before you have a crime. We can we can take the gun away from an individual before a crime is proven. So that allows us to intervene at the beginning of the troublesome conduct and remove the gun. So, I think that that is a that’s a plus of course because we don’t have to wait for something awful to happen. We don’t need to wait for a judge to convict somebody of a crime. We’re able to intervene early and hopefully keep that person safe.

 

Narrator

The other potential benefit of using a Gun Violence Restraining Order in a domestic violence situation is that the police department can file the order on behalf of the victim.

 

San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott

Having your law enforcement department take that on takes the burden off of a victim who could be going through a lot of trauma and fear that’s another benefit of having a gun violence restraining order is removing that victim from the process. And our law enforcement department will take that up themselves instead of putting that burden onto the victim.

 

Narrator

Sofia on the other hand stuck with the process and met her attorney Kendra Thomas. At the time there was no such thing as a gun violence restraining order in California. But even so, Thomas explains that a Gun Violence Restraining Order alone would not include the custody, support, and other orders afforded by a domestic violence restraining order.

 

Kendra Thomas

One thing that the code does though that’s really interesting to the extent you have concern about someone… They’ve given great discretion to police officers to go in and make an application. Here’s what I’m concerned about. Here’s why I’m concerned about it. A police officer has the ability, having no family relation to the individual, to make an application orally or written for a gun violence restraining order against someone. So that’s kind of the catch all. And then what are we getting when we walk out of court with that order? It’s not an order to keep someone away. It’s merely an order to take away their firearms.

 

Narrator

According to the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, California is second only to Texas for the most number of guns owned by state.

 

Richard Martinez 

Chris was our only child and he was everything to us.

 

Narrator

In 2014, Richard Martinez’s son Christopher was one of six people killed and fourteen injured in Isla Vista, California.

 

Richard Martinez 

He was just the center of my life. I talked about him every single day. Thought about him every single day. And you know that there’s nothing that. That I can do to bring him back. And I just don’t want what happened to us to happen to other families. For me personally, I can’t accept the way that my son died and I refuse to accept that in the 21st century in the United States of America we have to live like this.

 

It’s just. It’s a failure of leadership really.

 

Narrator

After the Isla Vista murders state lawmakers passed the Gun Violence Restraining Order law in 2014. And Richard Martinez and others campaigned fervently to get it passed. Since his son’s death, Martinez has become a gun violence prevention advocate working with the survivor’s network for Everytown for Gun Safety.

 

Richard Martinez 

The reality is in the past two years Las Vegas was the deadliest lone gunman shooting in the history of the United States. Parkland was the deadliest high school shooting in the history of the United States. Pittsburgh was the deadliest attack on American Jews in the history of the United States. Sutherland Springs was the deadliest house of worship shooting in the history of the United States. And now El Paso is the deadliest attack on American Latinos in the history of the United States. And what had they done? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

 

Narrator

Martinez is talking about Congress. Federal legislation has been slow to emerge. Meanwhile states have passed versions of their own red flag laws in the absence of Congressional action bringing the total number to seventeen states and the District of Columbia. California’s red flag law—the Gun Violence Restraining Order — went into effect in 2016. But in the first two years, only 190 GVROs were filed statewide. That means that there still isn’t a whole lot of data or experience to determine how the orders are working and affecting those involved in the restraining order process.

 

Richard Martinez

You can pass a law. But that doesn’t mean it’s gonna get used. And so, there’s a there’s a learning curve and there where it takes time for these things to get implemented.

 

Narrator

Enter San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott…

 

San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott

I ran for city attorney and won in 2016 and made this a priority for my office to try to tackle gun violence in the most meaningful way we could. And I had been studying gun violence restraining orders which was a tool that came into the state books into the law back after the UC Santa Barbara murders and found that that was something that we could do effectively as a city. But we didn’t have the program in effect yet, so we made that a priority called around to other jurisdictions in California and found that nobody else was doing it

 

Narrator

So, Elliott’s office created a Gun Violence restraining program. They started with getting buy in from law enforcement and the courts.

 

San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott 

And our court system hadn’t seen gun violence restraining orders because nobody else was using them. So, we started our own program here felt like we really had created something that could be modeled by other agencies.

 

Narrator

In 2016, before Elliott took office, San Diego County saw a total of four Gun Violence Restraining Orders. By the end of 2018, San Diego courts had issued just over 200 orders. The cases have been varied, and at times disturbing.

 

San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott

One of the first cases involved a person who was going through post-traumatic stress. He was on medication. He was drinking and he had access to a gun, so he was in his backyard shooting at what he believed to be raccoons. And this is one of those circumstances where the person whose guns were removed temporarily appeared to be grateful. We had another individual that had he was starting to slip. I believe he had dementia and thought that his wife, this was an elderly couple around 80, was having an affair with a neighbor. So, he went after her with a gun. And she escaped her home. And she was barefoot, and she went over cactus. And you can imagine the desperation for somebody to run from their home through cactus barefoot. We had a situation where a person who worked at a car dealership in one of our communities had told his co-workers that he admired a mass shooter in Las Vegas for what he had done, and he thought he was a hero. So, we took that seriously too. And this was a person who was having some employment issues and indicated that if he were ever terminated, he might come back and express his frustration using a gun.

 

Narrator

From 2016 to 2018, among the people who’ve had to surrender their firearms in San Diego County over half were white, and more than three-fourths were men.

 

Assemblymember Phil Ting secured a $50,000 budget allocation for statewide training at the City Attorney’s request. Since then, Elliott’s office has presented their program on Gun Violence Restraining Orders to over 250 law enforcement agencies.

 

Governor Gavin Newsom recently allocated an additional $250,000 to continue that work.

 

Narrator

Sofia Garcia was awarded a domestic violence restraining order, and her ex-husband eventually surrendered all of his firearms.

 

Sofia García

For me it was one of those things that I just I felt such a sense of freedom. I felt so free after leaving him and having this TRO in place and a custody agreement that I know I wouldn’t have been able to do by myself. Like there’s no way that I could have now navigated through these systems had I not gone into the clinic and had I not gotten the support from the director and from my attorney. There is absolutely no way that I’d be where I am now. And so now I mean like I was able to you know go back to working full time. I was able to get a promotion, several promotions at work. I was able to buy my house as a single mom. You know I finished my undergrad. I went back to school and I finished my undergrad, and now I’m a grad student about to finish her grad program. So, I mean there’s so many things that I feel like I’ve been able to accomplish since, and that you know had I stayed in that relationship I wouldn’t have been able to do. Or I would have possibly been dead.

 

Narrator

It’s been seven years since Sofia left her ex-husband. the restraining order is no longer in effect, because it expired after three years. And she has to co-parent her son with him. So, they’re still in contact on a regular basis. Because of the trauma she suffered, Sofia says she hasn’t felt comfortable enough to start dating again. Her ex-husband, however, has since remarried. And Sofia says she hears that there’s volatility in that relationship, too.

 

Narrator

For Making Contact, I’m Monica Lopez in Los Angeles.

You’ve been listening to TITLE on Making Contact.

For resources and information about intimate partner violence, gun violence, or the people you heard in this program, check out our web site at radio project dot org… that’s radioproject do o-r-g.

This documentary was produced as a project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2019 California Fellowship.

This show was written, produced, and engineered by Monica Lopez.

Editorial support, Catherine Stifter and Susan Racho.

Production assistance, Michelle Martin, Hank Hadley, Salima Hamirani and Lisa Rudman.

The Making Contact team is Executive Director Lisa Rudman, Producers Anita Johnson, Salima Hamirani, and Monica Lopez, Associate Producer Aysha Choudary, Audience Engagement and Web Coordinator Dylan Heuer.

And I’m Monica Lopez. Thanks for listening to Making Contact.

Music: 

  •  “Lifetrap (Johnny Ripper Remix)”, Year of Glad
  • “Some Club Tech Dance with Strobe Tension Atmo,” Wertstahl
  • “Thread of Clouds”, Blue Dot Sessions
  • “Affirmation”, Lee Rosevere
  •  “Surreal (Johnny Ripper Remix)”, Ouri
  •  “Galaxy Shard”, Blue Dot Sessions
  •  “Underwater”, Meydan

[This article was originally published by Making Contact.]