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Church massacre highlights how California lets abusers keep guns despite restraining orders

Sacramento Bee logo Sacramento Bee 3/2/2022 Jason Pohl, Ryan Sabalow, and Ariane Lange, The Sacramento Bee

Mar. 2—There was no room for interpretation in the domestic violence restraining order papers the shooter in Monday's church massacre had received a few months earlier.

The illustration of a handgun has a line drawn through it. A paragraph in bold 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."

But 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 at the Sacramento church that left three children dead on Monday evening showed that even in California — home to some of the strictest gun laws in the country — haphazard enforcement often leaves firearms in the hands of domestic violence perpetrators.

In truth, there are millions of weapons in circulation, many of them off the books and easily obtained illegally. And it is also true that there is no easy way for law enforcement officers to know someone has an unregistered gun.

That said, experts on the intersection of gun violence and family abuse say there is another simple but hard truth: The domestic violence restraining order system relies too heavily on a potential abuser obeying a court order and voluntarily handing over weapons.

In part, those experts said, 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, an emergency medicine physician at UC Davis Medical Center, where he is the director of 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's Office found major problems in enforcing gun prohibitions for accused abusers. And 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."

The 39-year-old man who shot his three daughters to death and killed a man inside a Sacramento church Monday before killing himself was armed with an AR-15-style rifle, records and sources say. David Mora, who is also identified in documents as David Fidel Mora-Rojas, was at the church for a supervised family visit with the girls. He was the subject of a restraining order issued in May that prohibited him from possessing a firearm or ammunition.

Though he was barred from having the rifle at the time of the shooting, officials say they are still looking into when and how he acquired it.

Monday night's shooting at The Church on Wyda Way points to an all-too-common problem.

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.

Researchers in another study found that, in nearly 70% of mass shootings, the perpetrator either killed at least one partner or family member or had a history of domestic violence.

Half of all women killed in the U.S. are murdered by a current or former intimate partner, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Although both federal and state laws bar domestic violence perpetrators — including subjects of restraining orders — from possessing a gun, experts say there are gaps in California's system that all too 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. Between 2007 and 2010, pilot projects in Butte and San Mateo counties assigned two detectives each to screen restraining order applications and determine whether the alleged perpetrator had guns.

The projects weren't as aggressive as they could have been under the law, but when police spent three years with this somewhat more proactive approach, they confiscated 665 firearms. San Mateo County detectives discovered 525 abusers who likely had guns and confiscated them from 119, including 29 people who had unregistered firearms. In Butte County, detectives identified 88 people who probably had firearms and confiscated them from 45 people.

Then the state stopped funding them.

Gun orders target different suspects

After a 2014 mass shooting in Isla Vista, California lawmakers sought to crack down on gun access for high-risk people. The shooter's mother noticed her son had been behaving erratically before the massacre and had stockpiled a cache of weapons and ammo. She tried to get law enforcement to intervene but was instead told there was little to be done because her son hadn't yet committed a crime.

California's law creating what are now known as "gun violence restraining orders" took effect in 2016. The rules now allow family members and law enforcement to petition for a court order that temporarily prohibits people who express an intent to harm themselves or others from purchasing or possessing any firearms or ammunition.

Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2019 signed legislation that extended the prohibition period to five years and expanded who could petition for the order to include teachers, employers and coworkers.

That system allows for law enforcement officers to head to a person's house and demand they hand over their firearms. If the person doesn't provide them, law enforcement officers can obtain search warrants to retrieve the weapons.

Judges approved 1,285 gun violence restraining orders in 2020.

Sacramento County courts issued gun violence restraining orders against about 70 people in 2019 and 2020, according to the California Department of Justice. The large majority of those orders were 21-day emergency orders requested by law enforcement.

Video: Suspicious Package Removed From Outside Downtown Sacramento Building (CBS Sacramento)

Suspicious Package Removed From Outside Downtown Sacramento Building

The Department of Justice's data shows wide variation in use of gun violence restraining orders across the state. The orders were used against nearly 600 individuals in San Diego County from 2019 through 2020, the data show. But they were only used against about 70 people in Los Angeles County — by far the most populous county in the state — during that same time period.

Domestic violence restraining orders such as the one issued to Mora-Rojas' girlfriend are another matter — one that some experts say must become more of a priority.

Thanks to a law that's been on the books since at least 1993, judges are able to demand guns be removed from the possession of a suspected abuser after a hearing.

In Sacramento County alone, there are some 4,000 domestic violence restraining order requests filed each year, a Sacramento County Superior Court spokeswoman said. That amounts to about 11 new requests on average filed every day, including weekends.

Roughly four-in-five of those requests are new, meaning it's the first time courts have dealt with the family. The rest are pending divorce or parenting cases.

Alleged victims can file for domestic violence restraining orders that pointedly require an abuser to give up their guns. The orders are simultaneously more specific and more far-reaching than a gun violence restraining order. They spell out everything from the physical distance someone must keep from a protected party to cutting off contact altogether.

The court can order the abuser to surrender their guns. The problem is that there's often a lack of follow-up, experts said. While authorities can obtain search warrants after a domestic violence restraining order is issued, they're rarely sought, creating what in some ways amounts to a de facto honor system.

"They have all the tools available," said Julia Weber of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. "It's just a matter of whether or not they take the appropriate steps. And that requires the courts and law enforcement working together, as well as domestic violence advocates engaging in appropriate safety planning."

In California, law enforcement officers are required to check the state's firearms database to ensure a person hands over their weapons when the officer serves the domestic violence restraining order paperwork. But experts say that if the alleged abusers possess guns that aren't in the system, the law enforcement officers often won't know about them.

The restraining order system can put the onus on the victims of domestic abuse to tell courts and law enforcement exactly how many guns their alleged abuser may possess — something they may not know.

And what passes for gun confiscation can vary greatly by jurisdiction, said Dr. Amy Barnhorst, vice chair for community mental health at the UC Davis Department of Psychiatry.

"I know, anecdotally, people who have been in these kinds of situations and have been told by police, 'Oh, just give the guns to a friend for a while or just get them out of the house,' " Barnhorst said. "It was not an aggressive firearms removal process."

Judges also have the authority to order firearms seized immediately after a hearing, said Wintemute, the director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis.

"In theory, the judge could make that demand, at that time, and send a bailiff back home with the person to get the guns," he said. "That happens rarely. It's not required."

A victim of domestic abuse usually is facing immense pressure not to add to an already tense situation, so they often allow the restraining order to expire. That can happen before their alleged abuser is even entered into the state's "Armed and Prohibited Persons" database that forbids them from possessing or buying firearms and ammunition, experts said.

"Women have a lot of reasons not to want to file (for a restraining order) because they might inflame the situation in the first place," Barnhorst said. "And then they have a lot of reasons to drop the order" after the restrictions on gun possession expire after a few days.

In Mora-Rojas' case, a Sacramento County judge granted the restraining order last May, and it was set to expire in five years.

It ordered him to stay at least 100 yards away from his ex and their daughters except for supervised visits of up to four hours that were to be overseen by a family friend.

"Due to respondent's mental instability, I am asking that visitation with the children be supervised by my friend," the girls' mother, who is not being named because she is a victim of domestic violence, wrote in court documents. "Four hours on the weekend."

A mass shooting among many

Monday night's shooting was but the latest in a long string of California massacres committed by people who were barred under existing laws from having a gun. The prominence points to continued failures of a system to enforce laws on the books in a society awash in firearms.

On Feb. 2 — less than four weeks before Monday's church shooting — a 21-year-old Sacramento passenger on a Greyhound bus opened fire on passengers in Oroville, killing one person and wounding at least four others, including an 11-year-old girl.

The suspect, Asaahdi Elijah Coleman of Sacramento, had a lengthy rap sheet that should have stopped him from owning a gun. Among his cases: unlawful gun activity in Alameda County and possession of a loaded 9mm handgun with no serial number in Sacramento County.

"We can say clearly that this particular individual in no way, shape or form should have been in possession of a firearm," Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said the morning after the shooting.

It was among several other recent high-profile shootings in California from people prohibited from having firearms.

The man accused last year of killing four people and wounding the mother of a third grader who died in her arms in the Southern California city of Orange had a six-year-old battery conviction that should have prohibited him from possessing firearms.

In 2020, a Madera man fatally shot his estranged wife in front of the couple's three children. The woman had told law enforcement her husband had a gun, and she detailed the abuse that had gone on. The shooter, however, denied having firearms, and there was little apparent follow-up. He killed her a month after the court hearing.

The case was the subject of a recent CalMatters investigation that spotlighted shortcomings with gun forfeitures stemming from domestic violence restraining orders.

"We have to come up with a better way of doing this. The honor system is not working," Paul Durenberger, a retired Sacramento County prosecutor who was in charge of his office's family violence bureau, told CalMatters.

And in November 2017, a gunman drove through the nearby community of Rancho Tehama, northwest of Oroville, firing indiscriminately. The man killed five people in the rampage and wounded dozens more, including several students at an elementary school, before he shot himself after a gunfight with deputies.

Like so many mass shootings, one of the victims was the gunman's wife.

Neighbors said they told deputies about screams coming from the vicinity of Kevin Janson Neal's home, but there's no record that the Sheriff's Office flagged Neal's wife, Barbara Glisan, as a possible domestic violence victim.

Glisan was the first person Neal killed, her body buried underneath the floor of their disheveled trailer home the night before his other killings.

Despite a restraining order requiring him to surrender his weapons, the man routinely frightened his neighbors by firing guns in the air. A Sacramento Bee investigation found that at least nine people brought the man's erratic behavior to law enforcement's attention, though deputies never filed search warrants to seize the man's weapons.

Barnhorst, the UC Davis expert, said lives can be saved in domestic violence restraining order cases in California, if authorities go beyond the system in which police and courts ask suspected abusers, "'Hey, please give those (guns) up in the next day or two.'"

She said law enforcement officers and courts need to adopt a mentality of, "'We are coming in. We are searching the database. We are getting a search warrant. We're going through your home. And we're aggressively removing every firearm.'"

"This is one of those places," she said, "where that is very much justified in terms of the lives it can save."

The Bee's Sam Stanton and Phillip Reese contributed to this story.


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