How San Diego's City Attorney is keeping guns away from potentially violent people

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San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott. Photo courtesy of the San Diego Office of the City Attorney

In San Diego, Mara Elliott was a mother of two young kids, working in finance and contracts, when the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School changed the course of her career. She ran for office, was elected the San Diego City Attorney, and pushed through the city's red flag law, which keep guns out of the hands of people who show the potential for violence. 

“It hit me very hard," Elliott says about Sandy Hook. "You question whether you're putting your child in a safe place when drop them off at school… I always questioned whether there was something more that we at the city level could do." 

How does a red flag law work?

The public is free to report suspicious behavior to the police, who then notify the City Attorney's Office if they believe someone's at risk to themselves or to a community member. 

"The police department does their investigation. They give us the information that we need here at the City Attorney's Office to pursue the gun violence restraining order," Elliott says. "We bring our request to a judge who is unbiased and looks at both sides… And if the judge determines that this person poses a significant risk to themselves or to others, then their gun or their access to guns is removed for up to 12 months."

Elliott says law enforcement officials depend on the eyes and ears of the community, and that much of the information her office uses to begin the restraining order process is based on social media, an overheard comment, or observations of conduct.

"That is the whole intent of a red flag law: to allow us to seize that powerful, potentially deadly weapon from somebody before they harm themselves or they harm someone else," Elliott says.

Examples of preventing gun violence

Elliott says she has seen examples in just about every setting imaginable, including threats in schools and in the workplace.

"We've had folks who are going through a divorce, and we've got husbands threatening to shoot the wife or children. 

We have circumstances where a relationship broke off after a few months, and the boyfriend is not happy about it and continues to show up at the woman's home during the middle of the night, pressing the doorbell. And the woman knows that he's got a firearm.

In the workplace, one of our earliest cases involved a car dealership employee who made comments glorifying the Vegas shooter, and then said he would shoot up the dealership if he were ever fired. And this person was having employment problems. So his co-workers were very concerned about the comments.

I think especially recently some hate crime concerns here. We've had cases where individuals have threatened to shoot up a gay bar or kill Muslims."

Measuring success 

Elliott says her office has seized about 400 firearms (including about 40 assault rifles), and they've obtained more than 300 gun violence restraining orders.

"We will never know how many lives we've saved because we prevented violence from occurring. But we always ask ourselves, after we read about or hear about a mass shooting, whether a gun violence restraining order might have prevented that tragedy. And most often we believe the answer is yes, because typically somebody has seen the indicators of a shooter's intent to harm other people," she says. "So gun violence restraining orders to be a powerful tool for saving lives."


--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Devan Schwartz