Elliott: Disarming domestic abusers can protect us all


Mara Elliott is the city attorney for San Diego and a national leader in preventing violence through the use of red-flag laws. She is also an advocate for victims of domestic violence. This was first distributed by American Forum.

Before the Lewiston, Maine, shooting spree suspect began voicing plans to “shoot up” his community, there was already a red flag that he might someday commit a mass shooting. The same red flag was also present well before a Republican donor shot his wife and then killed himself in a restaurant parking lot Oct. 9 in Palm Beach, Florida. The same red flag had been flapping wildly for years before a shooter took the life of a judge in Maryland on Oct. 19. Each of the shooters, now all dead by suicide, had the same red flag waving from their past: domestic violence. Indeed, one of the strongest indicators that someone will commit gun violence, particularly a mass shooting, is if that person has previously committed violence against an intimate partner or family member.

As city attorney of San Diego, I have used our state’s red-flag laws, also known as gun violence restraining orders, to disarm over a thousand truly dangerous people, a third of them domestic abusers. Having this commonsense intervention available to law enforcement and the public is one of the reasons why California also has 43% fewer gun deaths than the rest of the country. Since California’s red-flag law went into effect seven years ago, GVROs have been credited with disarming 58 potential mass shooters, who had threatened to commit large-scale gun violence. Of the individuals who had firearms temporarily removed via one of these restraining orders, nearly a third had an assault-type weapon, such as an AR- or AK-style rifle.

Focusing on the use of GVROs to reduce the impacts of domestic violence is key to protecting those experiencing abuse, but it can also protect entire communities. In the U.S., domestic violence has been identified as a common factor in nearly 70% of fatal mass shootings, meaning the perpetrator first killed a partner or family member, or had a history of domestic abuse. It was the case in Sandy Hook, it was the case in Majorie Stoneman Douglas High School, it was the case in Robb Elementary, it was the case in the Pulse nightclub, and it was the case in the most recent shooting spree in Lewiston. The use of gun violence restraining orders and domestic violence restraining orders in cases of domestic violence is constitutionally consistent with the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. However, this month, the Supreme Court will hear U.S. v. Rahimi, which examines whether federal law can prohibit someone subject to a qualifying domestic violence restraining order from having a gun.

The eponymous case of Zackey Rahimi demonstrates precisely why red-flag laws are so critical to the safety of communities and illustrates how the gun lobby’s efforts make our country less safe. In U.S. v. Rahimi, Rahimi pleaded guilty in 2021 to possessing guns in violation of a federal law that makes it a crime to possess guns when you are the subject of a qualifying domestic violence restraining order. Rahimi had such a protective order against him because of his actions against his ex-girlfriend, with whom he has a young child; after he was involved in six separate shooting incidents around Arlington, Texas; and after a search of his bedroom turned up a pistol with an extended magazine and a semi-automatic rifle. A federal grand jury indicted him for possessing the guns, but his lawyers challenged the constitutionality of prosecuting him. The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately sided with Rahimi, ruling that the Second Amendment prevents the government from barring individuals subject to qualifying domestic violence protective orders from possessing a gun. The U.S. Office of the Solicitor General appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Americans overwhelmingly want restrictions on gun ownership in domestic violence scenarios. Indeed, a federal law banning those convicted of domestic violence from purchasing a gun is an approach supported by 81% of those self-identifying as Republicans and 91% of self-identified Democrats polled. The issue the public has with red-flag laws isn’t a lack of support for them but rather a lack of awareness of them. Most Americans in the 21 states with red-flag laws are unaware this powerful, relatively new crisis intervention tool is available to disarm a dangerous situation. Though gun violence restraining orders had been available in California for five years, two-thirds of the Californians surveyed had no knowledge of them. As we desperately search for solutions, spreading awareness on how the public can use these laws right now may be the fastest and most effective way to address one of the most chronic patterns in our nation’s gun violence epidemic.

Reader reactions, pro or con, are welcomed at civiltalk@iniusa.org.

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