Detectives in two California counties successfully took hundreds of guns away from those with domestic violence restraining orders against them with little trouble, according to a recently published UC Davis study.
There’s no way to say, yet, however, whether such a procedure could have helped spare the life of Leslie Renee Pinkston, the 32-year-old woman killed on a Winters street in November, allegedly shot to death by her ex-boyfriend, William Carl Gardner III, 30, of Sacramento.
That’s in part because police have not recovered the murder weapon, though Lt. Anthony Cucchi of the Woodland Police Department said last week that police “have some ideas” about the gun Gardner allegedly used.
While Cucchi said he didn’t immediately know the accused’s gun ownership history, Gardner could not have owned a gun legally.
Californians who are under a domestic violence restraining order, as Gardner was, are ordered to give up their guns to police or sell them to a gun dealer within 24 hours. They must give up their guns immediately if an officer demands they do so.
Pinkston and her mother, Carla Crane, had obtained a restraining order last January following a stalking incident in which Gardner smashed a window and threatened both women, according to court records.
Gardner had violated the terms of probation in a Sacramento domestic violence case and was to have stood trial this month on charges that he stalked and threatened Pinkston.
In its study, UCD recently examined state-funded efforts in San Mateo County and Butte County, where 665 guns were found in the hands of those with domestic violence restraining orders against them over three years.
At the time, there were no systematic efforts anywhere in the country to take guns away from people who bought them legally but were later barred from owning one, because they’d committed a crime or were under a protection order.
The state is beginning to change that.
In the wake of the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn., the California Legislature in March approved $24 million to expand the Department of Justice’s Armed and Prohibited Persons System statewide.
In 2011 and 2012, with 33 agents, the APPS program investigated 4,000 people prohibited from owning guns, seizing about 4,000 weapons during sweeps.
The UCD study’s lead author, Garen Wintemute, said the counties’ efforts and APPS have shown it is possible to enforce existing gun prohibitions without incident. The study also found procedures that could be streamlined, he said.
“What we don’t know about these programs is their effect on crime,” said Wintemute, the director of UCD’s Violence Prevention Research Program.
“We know that you can get guns back, but we don’t know that whether doing that reduces the chances that these people will commit new crimes. A cautious policy may want an answer to that question before going forward.”
In San Mateo, between May 2007 and June 2010, detectives reviewed 6,024 restraining orders. They linked 525 to guns. Of those, 119 people surrendered one or more guns.
Between April 2008 and June 2010, Butte detectives reviewed 1,978 orders. They eventually recovered guns from 88 people.
In both counties, screening was triggered when a domestic violence protection order was issued. Detectives combed through state databases, including those for assault weapons registrations, concealed weapons permits and handgun transfers.
However, the databases identified less than half of the gun owners in the cases reviewed, according to the study.
At the time, records of long-gun transfers were not part of the state database. Those will be added Jan. 1 — another reform being put into place in the wake of Sandy Hook. California’s handgun and assault weapons transfer database dates to 1996.
So detectives could have knocked on the door of a man with a protection order against him and asked about, say, two handguns he legally purchased since 1996, only to discover that he also owned another handgun bought before 1996, as well as shotguns or rifles not in the database.
Detectives also read through the petitions for protection orders and sometimes spoke with petitioners about whether the offender owned guns. The counties drew up a form to help victim-protection organizations detail that information.
“It was time-consuming. The detectives were very busy doing this work,” Wintemute said. “The computer work was pretty fast, but they had to get copies of the court documents and riffle through those. In some cases, they had to contact the petitioners, so the screening took a fair amount of time.”
Most restraining orders are served not by police, but someone acting on behalf of the person who requested the order, he said. That might be a lawyer, a process server hired by a lawyer, even a friend.
Each county came up with its own way of asking about weapons.
San Mateo sent out civil deputies, law enforcement agents who typically do things like serve eviction notices. They could serve the protection order and explain the firearm ban, but it wasn’t within the scope of their job to take guns into custody.
That meant that the deputies had to wait for a police officer or detective or, because of workload, leave to continue their work elsewhere. The system turned out to be “very cumbersome,” Wintemute said.
Butte detectives who’d screened the cases went out to knock on doors, serve orders and ask for guns “in as non-confrontational a way as possible,” he said.
The American Journal of Public Health published the study by the UCD and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health researchers online on Dec. 12.
Wintemute hopes to follow it up by studying the future arrests of people banned from having guns who’ve actually had their guns taken away versus those from whom the state did not collect guns.
While no evidence yet exists that taking guns away from banned persons reduces violence, there’s reason to believe it might, he said.
Women are twice as likely to be murdered by partners using a firearm than by strangers using any weapon, he said, and gun-owning abusers are five to eight times more likely to kill their victims.
An estimated 1,127 U.S. women were murdered and 605,000 assaulted by their partners in 2011, according to the FBI.
Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, has introduced a bill that would fund APPS-like pilot programs in other states, but it has gained little traction.
— Reach Cory Golden at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8046. Follow him on Twitter at @cory_golden