After a San Jose teenager posted a picture of a gun on social media, police turned to a civil procedure normally used to remove guns from violent or suicidal adults—a restraining order.
Police showed up at the house of a 13-year-old on Dec. 27 after he posted a photo on Snapchat of the gun and a threat to bring it to school. Officers discovered the gun was a toy airsoft rifle. The child’s father owned real firearms that were in a locked gun safe. The father claimed his child didn’t have access to the safe, but the San Jose Police Department was unable to verify that, according to the restraining order.
San José Spotlight was unable to reach the parents and is not naming the minor to protect their privacy.
It’s unclear whether a law enforcement agency in Santa Clara County has ever filed a gun violence restraining order (GVRO) against a child. The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office, which has trained law enforcement officers on how to file these orders, referred questions to SJPD. Department spokesperson Christian Camarillo told San José Spotlight he does not believe SJPD tracks this information.
“However, it is out of the ordinary,” Camarillo said.
California enacted legislation creating gun violence restraining orders in 2016. Courts use these orders to keep firearms out of the hands of people—almost always adults—who pose a risk of harming themselves or others. Typical examples include people who have expressed suicidal intentions or threatened spouses or family. They are usually filed with the court by law enforcement agencies, but anyone can submit one. People served with a GVRO must surrender or sell their firearms within 24 hours.
Santa Clara County, which has had GVROs since 2018, uses them more than almost any other county. The Santa Clara County Superior Court has recorded 172 GVRO cases since 2018. The number filed has increased every year, with 74 cases recorded in 2021.
Court spokesperson Benjamin Rada told San José Spotlight he didn’t know if there were any other GVRO cases involving minors, and that the court can’t disclose this information.
It’s not unprecedented for law enforcement agencies to file GVROs against children, but it is rare. Only 21 out of 1,094 people in California who received a gun violence restraining order between 2016-2019 were under the age of 18—about 2% of the total group, according to a study by UC Davis.
Veronica Pear, the author of the study and an assistant professor at UC Davis who studies gun violence restraining orders, told San José Spotlight she believes they can be an effective tool for preventing school shootings. This would only apply in cases where a potential shooter indicates ahead of time they are contemplating violence at school. Pear said there seems to be a common pattern in many shootings, citing mass attacks that occurred at schools in Columbine, Colorado, Sandy Hook, Connecticut and Parkland, Florida.
“It’s hard to say definitively that GVROs causally prevent mass shootings from occurring, but the evidence so far is promising,” Pear said. As an example, she pointed to two underage individuals who received GVROs after threatening to commit school shootings. Neither individual ended up committing a shooting.
There has been little research on how gun violence restraining orders may impact minors. Pear said police contact at an early age can be harmful to young people by creating psychological distress and a sense of identification as a criminal.
GVROs are a civil—not criminal—mechanism, so they can in theory be carried out without using police. Pear also noted GVROs don’t create a criminal record for juveniles, and courts frequently seal GVROs to prevent them from being seen by the public. However, when San José Spotlight checked the GVROs—which are a civil filing in the Santa Clara County court —from 2018 to the present, this particular juvenile record had not been sealed.
“In short, the risk of not issuing a GVRO will need to be weighed against the potential negative consequences facing minor respondents,” Pear said.
The recent GVRO is potentially another example of San Jose’s tough stance on guns. Last year, city lawmakers proposed a first-in-the-nation measure to mandate gun owners carry insurance and pay into a public fund to cover the social cost of gun violence following the VTA mass shooting in downtown San Jose.