Shooting of Sacramento Police Officer Highlights Underuse of California's Red Flag Law

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A man chooses a gun at the Gun Gallery in Glendale, California, on April 18, 2007.  (Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images)

Following a series of mass shootings across the county, calls for more so-called red flag laws are increasing.

Such laws allow police or family members to request a person’s guns be confiscated if that person poses a threat to themselves or others. California already has a red flag law, known as a the Gun Violence Restraining Order. But experts say it’s being underused, sometimes with tragic results.

On June 19, rookie Sacramento Police Officer Tara O’Sullivan was responding to a domestic disturbance call. She and her colleagues were helping a woman remove some belongings from a home, when suddenly, the shooting began.

The panic in her partner's voice was clear as his body camera recorded his reaction after a hail of rapid-fire gun shots.

The Murder of Tara O'Sullivan

“Officer down! Officer down! Code three fire, high-powered rifle," he yelled into his radio.

O’Sullivan, just 26 years old, was shot and died several hours later.

The man accused of her murder, Adel Sambrano Ramos, had had run-ins with the legal system before, most recently in the fall of 2018, when he was charged with misdemeanor battery against a minor. He had skipped a related court hearing and was subject to arrest when he shot and killed O’Sullivan.

Veronica Pear, a research data analyst at the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis, wrote in a recent study that she and several colleagues found red flag laws like California’s can play a role in preventing mass shootings. Pear said Ramos would have been a good candidate for a Gun Violence Restraining Order (GVRO).

“We have reason to believe he would batter his intimate partner again, and we know that he's out on bail and he has access to firearms," she said. "That's sort of a perfect spot for GRVO to come into play as sort of a stop gap between the arrest and the trial.”

But a public records inquiry reveals no order was ever requested, either by the Sacramento Police Department or Ramos’ immediate family. And Pear said, so far, that’s the norm in California.

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“In the first three years, 2016, 2017 and 2018, we found that there were a total of just over 400 individual respondents to GVROs," Pear said. "In comparison, some other states, like Florida and Maryland, have had that many in the first few months of implementation.”

One possible reason so few gun-related restraining orders have been requested is a lack of education. Many in the law enforcement arena simply don’t know how to use them. San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott recalls the first time her office requested one.

“The first time we ever filed one we actually had to send one of our attorneys down to the business office at the courthouse to help the business staff process our request for a gun violence restraining order," she said. "That's how new it was."

Elliott has since made a concerted effort to use California’s red flag law more in San Diego. The city accounts for a large portion of the orders issued in the state. And in the last year, Elliott has launched a training effort for law enforcement agencies that started in San Diego and is now expanding to other parts of California.

Elliott is seen as a champion of the law. She said while there are other measures that law enforcement can use to confiscate guns, gun violence restraining orders offer something unique.

“It is a tool we can use before something horrible happens. And with the others we have to wait for some triggering incident," Elliott said.

A bill currently in the state Senate, AB 61, would expand who can use the red flag law, but most requests are currently made through police.