When Colsaria Henderson first saw the letters, she was shocked.
As the director of programs for Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence in San Jose, several survivors who had filed restraining orders started coming to her with letters they received this year from the Superior Court of California, County of Santa Clara.
“The restrained person has failed to offer satisfactory proof that he or she has relinquished the guns, firearms, or ammunition as required by law,” the letters all said, alerting survivors that their abusers had not surrendered their guns as required by law.
Knowing this, said Henderson, often caused survivors intense fear.
One survivor, a mother of two from Santa Clara County, had come to Next Door Solutions after her long-term partner repeatedly assaulted her—including strangulation. She secured a restraining order and notified law enforcement about the firearms he kept at his workplace, and finally felt safe, said Henderson. But he violated the restraining order, and months later she got the letter saying he never surrendered his guns.
“She was really frightened upon receiving the letter,” said Henderson.
So instead of continuing to seek help through law enforcement, the woman went into hiding, leaving her home to go live in a place where she hoped he couldn’t find her.
This woman is not alone. Despite having some of the country’s toughest gun laws related to domestic violence, a lack of resources at local police departments often means that gun relinquishment laws go unenforced—leaving survivors in danger.
“There are survivors of domestic violence who have done what the system tells you to do, which is get a protective order, and they’re supposed to be safe during that,” said Henderson. “The law tells people that they cannot access guns and that they have to relinquish those—but we’re not actually supporting that law.”
Federal law bars those who have been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor or who are the subject of a domestic violence restraining order, from possessing firearms.
California has even tougher laws that restrict an abuser’s access to ammunition and require law enforcement to confiscate firearms—either in plain view or discovered during a consensual search—at the scene of a domestic violence incident. In addition, anyone who is the subject of a domestic violence restraining order must relinquish their guns by selling them to a licensed dealer or by giving them to law enforcement within 24 hours.
These laws are associated with lower rates of intimate partner homicides, according to a 2017 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. State relinquishment laws such as California’s are associated with a nearly 10 percent lower rate of intimate partner homicide, and a 14 percent lower rate of gun-related intimate partner homicide.
Still, in California many guns remain in the hands of abusers.
“We have these federal laws and these state laws, but they’re not necessarily being enforced,” said Nancy Lemon, who teaches domestic violence law at UC Berkeley.
More than 10,000 Californians are barred from having guns because of domestic violence or felony convictions—but remain armed, according to the state’s Department of Justice.
“A lot of times—and I’ve seen this happen—law enforcement shows up at the door and says, ‘Turn over your gun,’ and he says, ‘Oh, I got rid of that a long time ago,’” said Lemon. “And then law enforcement says, ‘Do you have a receipt for that?’ and he says, ‘No.’ Nobody’s going to arrest him for that, and all of a sudden law enforcement doesn’t have grounds for a search warrant because he said that he got rid of that.”
“This is trusting the word of a person who is alleged to be an abuser,” she said.
Henderson said that in her work—Next Door Solutions gets 20,000 domestic violence hotline calls per year, she said—she has yet to see relinquishment properly enforced.
“We’re the largest agency [in Santa Clara] in terms of service provision, and I’m not seeing cases where enforced relinquishment happens,” she said. “I’m sure there are cases where perpetrators of domestic violence are turning over their weapons, but I’m not seeing cases where there are any repercussions to not relinquishing them.”
The consequences of leaving a gun in an abuser’s hands can be deadly.
Every month, 50 women in the United States are shot and killed by intimate partners, according to the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety, and the presence of a gun makes it five times more likely that a woman will be killed in a domestic violence incident.
Guns can also be used for harm in other ways.
“Even if a gun is never fired, it can be used to keep one’s partner compliant, and just knowing that the firearms exist in the house, or if their partner owns one in general, can make them fear for their safety,” said Jessica Merrill, communications manager for the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence.
But some law enforcement agencies have proven effective.
In 2007, the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office started a pilot Domestic Violence Firearms Compliance Unit to investigate all civil domestic violence restraining orders. (Butte County was also part of the pilot program.) A state grant funded two full-time detectives to review orders and check firearm and other law enforcement databases to determine how many guns may be in the restrained party’s possession. If firearms haven’t been relinquished, a judge could issue a search warrant to seize the firearms.
“Right around the same time, our firearm-related domestic violence homicides dropped significantly,” said Sgt. Linda Gibbons, who oversees the program.
In the first three years of the program, said Gibbons, San Mateo County had zero firearm-related domestic violence homicides. In the previous three years, there had been three.
Since the program started, the unit has confiscated 1,640 guns.
The Domestic Violence Compliance Unit lost state funding in 2010, but its success led to permanent support from the San Mateo Board of Supervisors. While it’s the only program of its kind in California, Gibbons said it could be replicated throughout the state.
“You could institute this program anywhere as long as you have the personnel and resources,” she said.
Getting guns out of the hands of batterers isn’t just about protecting the lives of partners and children—it’s also about protecting the entire community, research has shown.
According to Everytown, 54 percent of mass shootings are connected to domestic or family violence—with shooters killing intimate partners or family members—and 34 percent involved an assailant who was prohibited from possessing firearms.
“I see it as the ultimate form of preventing mass shootings,” said Jacquie Marroquin, director of programs for the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence. “It’s a pretty good indicator that if this person has no access to firearms, we are all safer.”