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Why California's "red flag" law didn't stop the Thousand Oaks shooter

A 28-year-old veteran with severe PTSD walked into a bar in Thousand Oaks, California, on Wednesday night and killed 12 people with a gun he likely shouldn’t have had.

by Tess Owen
Nov 9 2018, 8:37pm

A 28-year-old veteran with severe PTSD walked into a bar in Thousand Oaks, California, on Wednesday night and killed 12 people with a gun he likely shouldn’t have had.

In 2014, California became one of the first states to pass a “Gun Violence Restraining Order” law, commonly known as a "red flag" law, which prevents people deemed a danger to themselves or other from owning a gun. Although the shooter purchased his Glock 21 .45-caliber handgun legally, he also had a long history of mental health issues, including one incident that led to police drawing their guns.

To trigger California’s red flag law, however, a concerned family member or law enforcement official would have needed to file a petition with a court.

"I know from personal experience that whether law enforcement knows about it really depends on the jurisdiction."

But as far as police know, no one did. And on Wednesday night, the shooter took his handgun to the Borderline Bar & Grill’s college night, opened fire, and eventually killed himself. The gun was also modified with a high-capacity magazine that can hold as many as 26 bullets, compared to a regular magazine, which holds 13 to 15 bullets. High-capacity magazines are illegal in the state of California.

It’s possible that the gunman’s family — or even police — didn't file a petition because they didn't know about their options under the state’s red flag law.

“I know from personal experience that whether law enforcement knows about it really depends on the jurisdiction,” said Allison Anderman, Managing Attorney at Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “I think that implementation has been a struggle in California.” The Ventura County Sheriff’s Department did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment.

California granted just 189 petitions for gun violence restraining orders under their red flag law in 2016 and 2017, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. All but 12 were requested by law enforcement.

The Thousand Oaks shooter was living a short distance away with his mother at the time of the shooting and was known to law enforcement. They’d responded a number of times to his mother’s residence after neighbors reported disturbances. In April, neighbors reported banging and screaming in the middle of the night that led to an hours-long standoff police and the shooter. At one point, police even drew their guns and pointed them at the house.

After that incident, however, mental health specialists talked to the shooter and determined he did not pose a threat. Still, a neighbor told CNN that the shooter’s mother “lived in fear” of what her son might do.

California has some of the strongest gun laws in the country, including its red flag law. Lawmakers passed that regulation in 2014, after a mentally disturbed 22-year-old man with a history of violence killed six people and injured 14 in Isla Vista, near the campus of University of California, Santa Barbara.

Much like the Thousand Oaks gunman, the Isla Vista shooter owned his guns legally and had been known to law enforcement. His mother was concerned by his violent and disturbing online posts, and notified his therapist. In turn, his therapist contacted health officials, who notified the local sheriff’s department. When deputies visited his apartment to do a health check, they found him to be in fine condition.

California was also the first state to allow family members, in addition to law enforcement, to petition a court to confiscate guns from someone believed to be a danger to themselves or others. Had the law been place before the Isla Vista shooting, the shooter’s mother could have filed a petition to confiscate his guns.

In 2016, the California legislature tried to expand its existing red flag law by passing a measure that allowed teachers, professors, principals, co-workers, and employees, as well as mental health professionals, to petition for a gun removal order. But Gov. Jerry Brown ultimately vetoed the bill after pushback from gun rights advocates, who said the regulation denied gun owners due process.

Had Brown signed the measure into, someone other than a family member of the Thousand Oaks shooter or a law enforcement officer could have decided to take action.

“I think it was probably a mistake on the governor’s part,” said John J. Donohue III, a Stanford law professor and an expert in gun laws, in response to Gov. Brown’s decision to veto the bill. “I suspect that if more people are put in the position to use the law, awareness of the law in general will grow, and that will be a good thing.”

Donohue said that he recently looked at all the mass shootings that had occurred in the last few years, and concluded that red flag laws could have made a difference in all but one — the Las Vegas shooting on Oct. 1, 2017 that left 59 dead. The motive of the gunman in that case has remained a complete mystery, and he didn’t have the same record of violent or disturbed behavior.

Earlier this year, lawmakers in at least a dozen states scrambled to introduce their own versions of red flag laws in the wake of a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida. The impact of Florida’s new law was stunning, especially compared to California.

By July — within just five months of Gov. Rick Scott signing the bill — 450 people were ordered to give up their guns as a result of the red flag law. That’s more than twice as many petitions filed in the entire state of California over two years.

Cover image: People comfort each other gather after a candlelight vigil for the victims of a mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, Calif., Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

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