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'Honor System' Allows Many Under Court Orders to Obtain Guns

There was no room for interpretation in the domestic violence restraining order the shooter in this week’s California church massacre received a few months earlier. The illustration of a handgun has a line drawn through it. A paragraph in bold type spells out the risk of a $1,000 fine and jail time for failing to comply. A heading declares: “You cannot have guns, firearms, and/or ammunition.”

Despite the unambiguous intent, such orders in California largely rely on the good faith of alleged abusers when the stakes couldn’t be higher. The shooting showed that even in California -- home to some of the nation's strictest gun laws -- haphazard enforcement often leaves firearms in the hands of domestic violence perpetrators, reports the Sacramento Bee.

There are millions of weapons in circulation, many of them off the books and easily obtained illegally. There is no easy way for law enforcement officers to know someone has an unregistered gun.

Experts say the domestic violence restraining order system relies too heavily on a potential abuser obeying a court order and voluntarily handing over weapons.

That “honor system” results from law enforcement failing to use current law to its fullest extent. “It’s not just (relying on) an honor system that the guy gives up his guns and is full and open about disclosing them,” said Dr. Garen Wintemute of the University of California Davis Medical Center, the Violence Prevention Research Program. “It’s that law enforcement will enforce the orders. And neither one of those things happen systematically.”

Authorities in California have known about the gaps for years. A 2005 report to the Attorney General found major problems in enforcing gun prohibitions for accused abusers. A more recent report from a Sacramento County domestic violence committee chaired by District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert pointed out the systemic failure in 2019, writing that “there is no mechanism in place to ensure the abuser does not have access to a firearm.”

The officials’ assessment was grim: “Proactive enforcement of these orders is currently nonexistent.”

More than half of shootings nationally in which more than three people were killed in one event were related to domestic or family violence, according to a 2020 report in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.

Gaps in California’s system often allow abusers to keep their weapons. Additionally, the state faces a backlog of cases: As of Jan. 1, 2021, the California Department of Justice reported to the legislature that they knew of 23,598 people in the state who had firearms despite being prohibited from owning a gun. California has made sporadic efforts to fix these shortcomings.


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