For three years Gabriela lived in torment and fear that if she left Louis, he would kill her.
This wasn’t an empty threat—Louis violently attacked Gabriela often, most of the time threatening to take her life.
After one particularly brutal incident in 2016, Gabriela sought help from the California justice system. With the assistance of an advocate from Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence, a San Jose nonprofit where I am the director of programs, she filed for a civil restraining order. I’m familiar with Gabriela’s case and have changed her and her Louis’ names to protect Gabriela’s safety.
The restraining order was granted and during the court process, Gabriela told the judge that Louis owned firearms and gave an address where they were located. Louis went on to violate the restraining order multiple times, threatening to murder Gabriela or have her deported. Gabriela called the police when she was able to. But by the time officers arrived, Louis had fled and therefore was never arrested.
A few months later, Gabriela got a letter from the court stating that, despite being required by law, Louis had never relinquished his firearms.
Frightened, she again sought help from one of our advocates and together they followed the procedure outlined in the court letter, stating that Gabriela should take this letter and a copy of her restraining order to her local law enforcement agency. After speaking with multiple officers she was told that there was no way to enforce the order for Louis to relinquish his weapons.
As our country faces a gun violence epidemic, I find myself perplexed by the blatant gaps in our prevention systems. California law and the public agree that batterers should not own guns, and yet law enforcement agencies are not equipped to enforce these regulations.
Federal law forbids restrained parties named on a civil or criminal court order from possessing a firearm. California law goes further and not only prevents the restrained party from possessing firearms but also requires them to relinquish those firearms or provide proof of sale.
But most law enforcement jurisdictions across the state seem to find these codes unenforceable, asserting that without the explicit issuance of a warrant, there is nothing they can do. The law lacks the teeth, and often the capacity, to enforce these restrictions, leaving victims like Gabriela to live in fear.
This affects more Californians than you might think. One in three women and one in four men will be victims of intimate partner violence or abuse in their lifetimes, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Keeping guns out of the hands of abusers saves lives. The Battered Women’s Justice Project website states that 54 percent of intimate-partner homicides are committed with firearms. Victims are five times more likely to be murdered if a firearm is accessible.
While most us fear mass shootings, it’s far more likely for intimate-partner violence to affect our neighbors, colleagues, friends and even children.
The least we can do is ensure that, for those seeking protection, our systems are strong.
With the daily inundation of atrocities and suffering in our communities, I can feel immobilized and overwhelmed, not knowing how to make a difference. Domestic violence and gun violence are giant issues to tackle, but maybe you and I can start with this policy change. If successful, we could make a huge difference in the safety and healing of survivors like Gabriela.
Colsaria Henderson is the director of programs for Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence in San Jose.