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New Strategies Could Stop Gun Violence Before It Happens

Can mass shootings be stopped before they happen?

That was the central question researchers from the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and the University of California, Davis asked in an article they published in the journal Behavioral Sciences and the Law in May of this year. Their conclusion? Gun Violence Restraining Orders or GVROs.

The concept of GVROs was first developed by the Consortium for Risk-Based Firearm Policy at a meeting in March 2013 at the Bloomberg School.  It was a new approach to dealing with the often complex and confusing issues that arise at the intersection of gun ownership, mental health, and the law when a person exhibits potentially violent behavior (but has yet to commit a violent act). Rather than waiting until a violent act occurs, family members of a relative exhibiting potentially violent behavior can request an order from the civil court authorizing law enforcement to remove any guns in the individual’s possession and prohibit the individual from making any new gun purchases for the duration of the order.

“GVROs allow family members or intimate partners who identify a pattern of dangerous behavior to intervene in advance of something bad happening.”

Shannon Frattaroli, PhD ’99, MPH ’94, Associate Professor, Department of Health Policy and Management
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

“GVROs allow family members or intimate partners who identify a pattern of dangerous behavior to intervene in advance of something bad happening,” says lead author Shannon Frattaroli, PhD ’99, MPH ’94, an associate professor with the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. “Currently under federal law, those who have been involuntarily committed to inpatient treatment for mental illness or those who have been convicted of felonies are prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms, but there is no temporary prohibition based on dangerousness,” Frattaroli said. “The limitation of this approach is that firearm removals do not go into effect until an extreme event that results in a criminal justice or mental health system response has already occurred.”

In order to develop their recommendation, researchers examined two mass shootings: The 2011 mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona where Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others were shot and the 2014 mass shooting in Isla Vista, California near the University of Santa Barbara. In both cases, family members had both identified potentially violent behavior and had attempted to obtain help for the shooters through both the law enforcement and mental health establishments. In both cases they were told nothing could be done because the relative had yet to commit a crime or violent act.

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“In both of these cases, those closest to the shooters identified dangerous behaviors and took concrete actions to intervene; however, their options were limited,” said study author Emma (Beth) McGinty, PhD, an assistant professor with the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. “Both of these men went on to commit horrific acts of gun violence that potentially could have been avoided.”

Lead author Shannon Frattaroli believes that GVROs can be a powerful policy tool for states seeking to reduce gun violence.  “Allowing family members to petition a court for help before a loved one’s risk of violence becomes real violence is a tool which should be considered by states seeking to reduce gun violence,” she says. “GVROs address an important policy gap, which unfortunately doesn’t provide many opportunities to intervene before it is too late.”