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Santa Barbara aftermath: how California is breaking new ground on gun control (+video)

With a law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown yesterday, the state becomes the first in the country to allow close relatives to request that a judge order that firearms be removed from someone who may pose a threat.

Four months after a mentally unbalanced student went on a shooting rampage – killing six and injuring 13 next to the University of California’s Santa Barbara campus in May – California has taken the national lead in gun control with two new laws allowing temporary seizure of guns from those who courts have decided are a threat to others or themselves.

With one of the laws, signed yesterday by Gov. Jerry Brown, the state becomes the first in the country to allow close relatives to request that a judge order that firearms be removed from someone who may pose a threat.

Several legal analysts say the laws neatly walk the tightrope between the constitutional right to bear arms and public safety. Gun rights advocates, however, say they trample on Californians’ civil liberties and deny the accused due process.

Ultimate clarification may only come as more such laws wind their way up to the US Supreme Court.

Of the pair, the law getting the most attention is Assembly Bill 1014, which authorizes a court to issue a temporary emergency gun-violence restraining order if a judge finds that there is reasonable cause to believe the subject poses an “immediate and present danger” to himself or others.

Three other states – Connecticut, Indiana, and Texas – already allow law enforcement to seek a judge’s order to seize guns from people they believe to be a danger. In addition to law enforcement, California extends the provision to family members.

The second law, Senate Bill 505, requires law enforcement to develop a process for checking for firearms possession before they contact people at the request of others.

“The legislation Governor Brown signed into law is remarkable in that no other state, despite a growing problem nationwide, has attempted to address mass shootings in this way,” says Kelly Welch, an associate professor in Villanova University’s department of sociology and criminology. “By temporarily blocking access to firearms for people who courts already know to be dangerous and violent, there is a chance that horrific events like those experienced at UC Santa Barbara can be prevented.”

Professor Welch calls AB 1014, “an innovative piece of legislation that should inspire other states that are grappling with gun violence to implement similar laws.”

The law does not permanently deny constitutional access to bearing arms, she says, but rather, allows for communities to be protected until potentially violent individuals can be helped.

“This new law will empower communities to protect themselves from its members who need special care in dealing with mental health problems,” Welch says.

Gun rights advocates, however, strongly disagree. AB 1014 is strongly opposed by gun groups such as Gun Owners of California and the National Rifle Association.

“Without a doubt, AB 1014 is one of the most egregious violations of civil liberties ever introduced in the California Legislature,” wrote Charles Cunningham, a director with the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action. 

The NRA and others against the bills are concerned about the due process rights of the accused and argue that the loss of rights to bear arms – though temporary – causes hardship during the process and costs money, through lawyers’ fees, to get them back.

But the father of the Isla Vista shooter, who committed suicide after his rampage near the university, praised the two laws as something that may have prevented his son’s killing spree.

“I have the utmost respect for all of those who put so much time and effort getting AB 1014 and SB 505 passed,” Peter Rodger said in a statement. “If both of these laws had been in place on May 23rd, things could have been very different. California, today, is a safer state because of this legislation. Let’s hope other states follow.”

One lawyer said the California law prevents police officers from trying to decide on the fly whether someone is mentally unbalanced.

“What I like about [AB 1014] is that it frees cops from the role society has put them in of having to make judgments that only psychologists should be making,” says Adam Thompson, owner and senior partner of Adam Thompson law offices and a nationally syndicated radio host.

Often, he and others say, police are called into situations where some spouse or family member has claimed mental instability, only to find a person who is calm and collected. The law also has penalties for making false accusations, he notes.

“This law stipulates an independent hearing before a judge, mandates those that are filing complaints to sign an affidavit,” says Mr. Thompson. “I like that it deals clearly with the issue of a family member that makes false accusations, and calls those on both sides together at a later date.”

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