Civil Protective Orders

Protective orders can remove firearms from dangerous situations

In California, there are several kinds of civil protective orders that can increase safety and prohibit those subject to them from purchasing or possessing firearms.

California has several different civil protective orders designed to address specific types of violence, abuse, harassment, and risk. These court orders vary in duration, who can request them, and what types of remedies and protections they provide. They include:

  • Domestic violence restraining orders (DVROs)
  • Gun violence restraining orders (GVROs)
  • Elder or dependent abuse restraining orders
  • Civil harassment restraining orders
  • Workplace violence prevention orders
  • School violence prevention orders

Because these are civil orders, individuals, without the assistance of attorneys or law enforcement, can file requests for them. The person who asks for the protective order is called the “petitioner” and the person subject to it is the “respondent.” Clinicians should be prepared to discuss these options when needs arise in the clinical setting.

Research suggests that removing firearms from domestic violence incidents reduces the likelihood that they will become fatal.1

Domestic Violence Restraining Orders (DVROs)

DVROs are court orders that can be issued to protect against abuse, harassment, or stalking by a current or former intimate partner, family member, or household member. Abuse can be verbal, psychological, written, or physical, and might include threats against intimate partners, children, or others living in the home. If the order is granted, the respondent is subject to provisions and prohibited from possessing or purchasing firearms and ammunition for the duration of the order.2 Protections and remedies provided by DVROs can include:3-6

  • no contact provisions
  • stay away provisions
  • move out provisions
  • counseling provisions
  • financial support

California requires respondents to surrender firearms to law enforcement or sell or transfer them to a licensed retailer within 24 hours of any type of DVRO being served. They must then provide evidence of compliance to the court within 48 hours.7 A violation of the DVRO firearm prohibition is a crime.

Laws that restrict domestic violence offenders’ access to firearms vary across states and over time. Research suggests that domestic violence restraining orders that include firearm prohibitions and those that cover current or former dating partners in addition to spouses are most effective for reducing intimate partner homicide and intimate partner homicide with firearms.8,9

There are three types of domestic violence restraining orders:
1. Emergency Orders

Emergency restraining orders last up to five business days or seven calendar days (whichever is shorter) and are only available to law enforcement, for example, when responding to domestic violence calls. Emergency orders can be served at an incident and firearms recovered immediately.

2. Ex Parte Orders

Ex parte (or “temporary”) orders last up to three weeks and can be filed by law enforcement and other parties (e.g., spouses, domestic partners, family members). Judges review petitions for temporary orders within one business day, and if granted, these orders become active when they are served. There is no fee to file petitions for DVROs, and some county courts have support sessions for completing these petitions; local client advocacy groups may also provide help.

3. Orders After Hearing

After an emergency or ex parte order is filed, each case is heard in court, at which point a judge can consider evidence from the petitioner and respondent and can grant an order lasting up to five years.

In California, a temporary DVRO can be requested by anyone living in the same household or who is related by blood or marriage, including current or former spouses or domestic partners, individuals who share a child, and adult roommates or siblings, as well as current and former dating partners.7 Minors who are 12 years or older can file for restraining orders without parent or guardian assistance.

Violating a DVRO by having contact with the petitioner is a crime, even if the petitioner gives permission for the contact. This can result in the respondent receiving jail time, a fine, or both.10 When a DVRO expires, as long as no other firearm prohibition exists, the respondent is allowed to retrieve their firearms and purchase new ones.

Gun Violence Restraining Orders (GVROs)

Some people may be at risk of harming themselves or someone else, and unwilling or unable to separate themselves from firearms that they own. A GVRO is a temporary civil court order to remove any firearms the person currently possesses and to temporarily suspend the person’s ability to purchase additional firearms or ammunition.11 No criminal activity or mental health history is required, only a demonstrated risk of firearm-related harm. GVROs are known in other states as extreme risk protection orders or “red flag” orders.

In California, as in many other states, GVRO legislation was passed in the wake of a mass shooting, but research suggests these orders are primarily used for suicide prevention.12-14

A recent study of extreme risk protection orders in Washington State found that 28% of orders were filed for concerns about the respondent’s risk for harm to self, 36% for concerns about harm to others, and 35% for concerns about harm to both self and others. About 80% of all respondents personally owned a firearm.15 

GVROs are also used in intimate partner violence situations. From 2016-2018, 25% of GVRO cases in California involved a threat to an intimate partner and 17% involved a threat to a family member other than an intimate partner (e.g., child, parent, sibling).16 Unlike DVROs, with a GVRO, there is no protected party and there are no restrictions on behavior such as staying away from a person or place; the focus is on removing access to firearms.

GVROs can be collaborative and respondents may agree to the GVRO. A GVRO could be sought for a high-risk person who owns guns, or for a high-risk person who doesn’t own them but has demonstrated intent to purchase guns or has access to someone else’s guns.

There are three types of gun violence restraining orders:
1. Emergency Orders

Emergency orders are available to law enforcement officers who encounter a crisis situation and can be requested by phone from a judge if the person poses “an immediate and present threat of danger.” Emergency orders last for 21 days.

2. Ex Parte Orders

Ex parte (or “temporary”) orders last up to three weeks and can be filed by law enforcement and other parties (e.g., family and household members, employers and coworkers, teachers and school officials). Ex parte orders are for cases where there is “substantial likelihood” that the person “poses a significant danger of harm to self or others in the near future by having access to a firearm.” Ex parte orders also last for 21 days.

3. Orders After Hearing

Within 21 days of an emergency or ex parte order being granted, the case is heard in court. At the court hearing, a judge considers evidence and determines whether the order should be canceled, allowed to expire, or extended for up to five years.

The respondent is prohibited from possessing and purchasing firearms and ammunition for the duration of the GVRO.11 When a GVRO expires, as long as no other firearm prohibition exists, the respondent is allowed to retrieve their firearms and purchase new ones.

Elder or Dependent Abuse Restraining Orders

Those ages 65 and older, as well as those between ages 18 and 64 with certain disabilities, who are victims of physical, mental, or financial abuse can seek elder or dependent abuse restraining orders.17 These restraining orders include several protection provisions for the victim, including:3,4

  • no contact provisions
  • stay away provisions
  • move out provisions

The respondent is prohibited from possessing and purchasing firearms and ammunition for the duration of the order.

Other California Civil Protective Orders

Protective orders are also available when someone poses a threat of workplace or school violence, or stalks, threatens, or harasses someone who is not a current or former partner or household member.18-20 Workplace and school violence prevention orders can last up to three years, and civil harassment restraining orders last for up to five years, with the possibility of renewal. The respondent is prohibited from possessing and purchasing firearms and ammunition for the duration of the order.

What You Can Do

Clinicians should be aware of the array of protective orders available in California and be able to discuss options as clinically indicated.

In California, clinicians cannot petition a court for protective orders on behalf of a patient. However, clinicians should be prepared to discuss safety plans and options for removing firearms from potentially abusive partners, household members, caregivers, or others making threats. Clinicians should respect a patient’s decision to not petition for a protective order and recognize that petitioning for such an order may exacerbate the situation and increase risk.

It can be difficult to ask questions about domestic and elder abuse, and patients may not be forthcoming or recognize that they’re at risk. The US Preventative Services Task Force recommends that clinicians screen all women of reproductive age for intimate partner violence.21 It is important to remember that men and children can also be victims. This screening resource has recommendations for starting this conversation. Learn more about intimate partner violence here.

If a patient is at risk of harming themselves or others with a firearm and another type of protective order is not indicated, a GVRO can be an effective way to remove firearms from the situation. If indicated, clinicians should find out whether or not they are allowed to talk with family members or others about petitioning for an ex parte GVRO.

In more urgent situations in which a patient poses “an immediate and present danger,” providers may be permitted to contact law enforcement. For example, if a patient reveals they are in the process of acquiring firearms and ammunition to perpetrate a mass shooting in a public setting or to attempt suicide, contacting law enforcement may the fastest way to prevent harm via an emergency protective order or a mental health hold.

Disclosure

Clinicians should use their clinical judgement to determine whether a patient’s risk of suicide or interpersonal violence merits sharing their protected health information (PHI) with an outside party, including family members or law enforcement. According to HIPAA, if a patient makes a “serious and imminent threat” of violence, the clinician is allowed to disclose protected health information that (1) is necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the health or safety of the patient or others and (2) is to a person(s) reasonably able to prevent or lessen the threat.22 According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, “HIPAA expressly defers to the professional judgment of health professionals in making determinations about the nature and severity of the threat to health or safety posed by a patient.”23

Click to view references

  1. Zeoli, A., Malinski, R., & Turchan, B. (2016). Risks and targeted interventions: firearms in intimate partner violence. Epidemiologic Reviews.
  2. Cal. Penal Code § 29825(a)
  3. Cal. Fam. Code § 6321(a)
  4. Cal. Fam. Code § 6340(c)
  5. Cal. Fam. Code § 6342 et seq.
  6. Cal. Fam. Code § 6343 et seq.
  7. Cal. Fam. Code § 6389 et seq.
  8. Zeoli, A. M., & Webster, D. W. (2010). Effects of domestic violence policies, alcohol taxes and police staffing levels on intimate partner homicide in large US cities. Injury Prevention.
  9. Zeoli, A. M., McCourt, A., Buggs, S., et al. (2018). Analysis of the strength of legal firearms restrictions for perpetrators of domestic violence and their associations with intimate partner homicide. American Journal of Epidemiology.
  10. Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 1218 et seq.
  11. Gun violence restraining orders, Cal. Assemb. B. 1014 (2013-2014), Chapter 872 (Cal. Stat. 2014).
  12. Kivisto, A. J., & Phalen, P. L. (2018). Effects of Risk-Based Firearm Seizure Laws in Connecticut and Indiana on Suicide Rates, 1981–2015. Psychiatric Services.
  13. Swanson, J. W., Norko, M. A., Hsiu-Ju, L., et al. (2017). Implementation and Effectiveness of Connecticut’s Risk-Based Gun Removal Law: Does it Prevent Suicides?. Law and Contemporary Problems.
  14. Swanson, J. W., Easter, M. M., Alanis-Hirsch, K., et al. (2019). Criminal Justice and Suicide Outcomes with Indiana's Risk-Based Gun Seizure Law. The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.
  15. Rowhani-Rahbar, A, Bellenger, M. A., Gibb, L., et al. (2020). Extreme Risk Protection Orders in Washington: A Statewide Descriptive Study. Annals of Internal Medicine.
  16. Pear, V. (2020). Unpublished analysis of raw data.
  17. Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 15657.03
  18. Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 527.8
  19. Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 527.85
  20. Cal. Penal Code § 646.91
  21. US Preventive Services Task Force. (2018). Screening for Intimate Partner Violence, Elder Abuse, and Abuse of Vulnerable Adults: US Preventive Services Task Force Final Recommendation Statement. JAMA.
  22. US Department of Health & Human Services, Office for Civil Rights. (2017, October 17). 520-Does HIPAA permit a provider to disclose PHI about a patient if the patient presents a serious danger to self or others.
  23. US Department of Health & Human Services, Office for Civil Rights. (2018, January 10). 3002-What constitutes a serious and imminent threat that would permit a health care provider to disclose PHI to prevent harm to the patient, another person, or the public without the patient's authorization or permission?

Learn more about potential interventions

Psychotherapists have a duty to protect third parties from violence threatened by their patients.

Mental health holds can help people at risk of suicide or violence get into psychiatric care.

For more information, see these peer-reviewed articles.

Duncan, T. K., Weaver, J. L., Zakrison, T. L., et al. (2020). Domestic Violence and Safe Storage of Firearms in the COVID-19 Era. Annals of Surgery.

Dicola, D., & Spaar, E. (2016). Intimate Partner Violence. American Family Physician.

Pallin, R., Schleimer, J. P., Pear, V. A., et al. (2020). Assessment of Extreme Risk Protection Order Use in California From 2016 to 2019. JAMA Network Open.

Gondi, S., Pomerantz, A. G., & Sacks, C. A. (2019). Extreme Risk Protection Orders: An Opportunity to Improve Gun Violence Prevention Training. Academic Medicine.

Wintemute, G. J., Pear, V. A., Schleimer, J. P., et al. (2019). Extreme risk protection orders intended to prevent mass shootings: A case series. Annals of Internal Medicine.


California’s court system provides information in plain English, Spanish, and other languages, and guidance about accessing free court information.

Click here for more information or find links to the court system’s information on specific types of civil protective orders below.

Additional Resources on Civil Protective Orders

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