Last month, Brandon Snyder had his gun taken away by authorities using a relatively new law that’s part of the national debate about how to prevent gun violence.
Co-workers of the 31-year-old San Diego mechanic had become alarmed after Snyder praised Las Vegas mass shooter Stephen Paddock for not “committing suicide until he’d gunned down enough people to set a modern record,” according to Mara Elliott, the city’s top prosecutor.
“What he told his co-workers is if it was up to him, he’d have shot up a mosque and then shot it out with the cops,” recalled Elliott, whose office investigated the case.
That wasn’t all. Snyder, facing the prospect of dismissal, told his Ford dealership colleagues that if he was let go, he’d return with a gun.
A co-worker called the police.
Unable to charge him with a crime, prosecutors turned to a new law enforcement tool: an emergency firearms protective order. On February 27, Snyder surrendered his semiautomatic rifle and “significant killing capability,” according to Elliott.
“We take no chances,” the prosecutor told VOA.
Snyder could not be immediately reached for comment. Tom Nicholl, the dealership’s general manager, did not respond to a request for comment.
19 instances in 3 months
In America, where many citizens take their constitutional right to own firearms very seriously, removing a gun from a lawful owner is no easy task. But San Diego has done it 19 times in the last three months under a two-year-old California law.
The law, passed after a mass shooting in 2014, allows police officers as well as family members to seek a court-issued gun restraining order if a person is found to pose an “immediate and present danger” to himself or herself or others. The gun owner must temporarily give up his or her firearms and is banned from buying new ones, generally for three weeks.
The law “gives people the opportunity to speak up and get a response before waiting for a crime or tragedy to happen,” Elliott said.
“Red flag” laws like the one in California have gained traction since the shooting at a Florida school that killed 17 people in February. Some advocates argue the tragedy could have been averted if Florida had had a gun restraining law.
While it is too early to measure the law’s effectiveness, the idea is getting support from both sides of the gun debate.
Laws in seven states
California is one of seven states to have adopted laws and policies on gun restraining orders, mostly following mass shootings. Nearly 20 other states are considering them.
Last week, Florida passed a law that allows for gun restraining orders. The state’s two senators, one a Republican and one a Democrat, have introduced a bill in Congress that incentivizes states to adopt gun restraining order laws. The White House has spoken out for the measure. In an about-face, the National Rifle Association, the nation’s main gun lobby, has thrown its support behind it.
“We need to stop dangerous people before they act, so Congress should provide funding for states to adopt risk protection orders,” NRA chief lobbyist Chris Cox said in a video message last week.
However, hard evidence that gun restraining orders are effective remains thin. In recent years, there has been only one major study on the topic and it focused on the law’s effectiveness in preventing suicide in Connecticut.
The 2016 study, widely cited by gun control advocates, showed that for every 10 to 20 gun restraining orders issued in the state from 1999 to 2013, a life was saved.
Though the NRA has come on board, other gun rights advocates say treatment, not gun seizure, is the answer to dealing with gun owners who show signs of trouble.
“If you really believe somebody is a danger to themselves or others, then you ought to think about involuntarily committing them to some type of mental health facility,” said John Lott, an economist and founder of the right-leaning Crime Prevention Research Center.
Infringement on other rights
Others worry that gun protection order laws may infringe on free speech, due process and other constitutional rights.
“I don’t want a police officer simply judging somebody’s talk to be sufficient to seize their arms,” said Peter Langrock, a Vermont lawyer who said he’s not a supporter of the NRA.
But supporters of gun restraining orders say the law strikes the right balance between public safety and civil liberties.
“The due process goes into balancing public safety,” said John Hemmerling, a prosecutor in the San Diego city attorney’s office. “The due process plays itself out within 21 days.”
On March 20, 21 days after giving up his rifle, Snyder will have his day in court, where a judge will hear his side of the story and decide whether to allow Snyder to retrieve his gun or extend the restraining order for up to a year.
Lynn Davis contributed to this report.