RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
After a mass shooting in this country, there are all kinds of questions about how the shooter was able to get a gun. Courts have long prohibited certain people from owning guns, like felons and people with domestic violence convictions. But in practice, the criminal justice system rarely checks to make sure guns have actually been surrendered. NPR's Martin Kaste has a story about one city trying to change that.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: In a coffee shop in downtown Seattle, two police officers have come to see the barista. They take him outside, and they serve him with a temporary protective order filed by his girlfriend.
ELLEN KERNAN: Don't have any more contact with her - no calls, emails, text, nothing. OK?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.
KASTE: So far, this is pretty normal. But then Officer Ellen Kernan starts grilling him about weapons.
KERNAN: Do you have any guns?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I have no weapons.
KERNAN: Do you have a CPL?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What's that?
KERNAN: Concealed pistol license.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, no.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I've never even handled a gun. So...
KASTE: They're asking him about a gun because his girlfriend says he has one. So a court has told him to surrender it temporarily. But this is the kind of court order that often gets ignored. In 2016, there were 875 gun surrender orders here in King County. And of those 875, only 52 people actually turned in guns - which is why there is now this new effort to send cops out to follow up in person.
KERNAN: But absolutely don't have anything?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No.
KERNAN: OK? OK.
KASTE: The problem is, if someone insists he doesn't have a gun, the cops are often stuck.
SEAN HAMLIN: I don't know who to believe. I don't know.
KASTE: That's the other officer on this call, Sean Hamlin. It's no simple matter, he says, figuring out whether someone owns a gun. The state's firearm purchase records are incomplete. Full of holes is how one cop describes them. So Hamlin says their next move probably depends on what the girlfriend says.
HAMLIN: If she has specific allegations of - I saw this gun, he always has this gun on him, or he always hides it under his pillow when he sleeps at night - more likely than not, we would get that search warrant signed by the judge, and we would go do it.
KASTE: Whether to get a warrant or whether to even follow up on a gun removal order, that's a decision made in this high-rise conference room.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Was anything else on today's calendar that we wanted to talk about?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yeah.
KASTE: This is the heart of Seattle's new gun removal effort. It's an unusual collaboration between city and county prosecutors and law enforcement. They're going about gun removal in a whole new way, which is getting some national attention. What they do is review the list of gun surrender orders that come out of the courts every week, and then they target the most ominous ones.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: She had also called 911 to report the stalking. So I assigned one of my detectives to work on that case to make sure that we could charge on it because then we have leverage to make sure that he turns in all of his firearms.
KASTE: Leverage - around this table, you hear that word a lot. And that's because this work often consists of just convincing people to give up their guns. City prosecutor Chris Anderson says that can mean just calling the gun owner's family.
CHRIS ANDERSON: We call people's moms. We call their aunt. We call their uncle. And we call everybody that we're able to talk to. And we explain to them, look, he's not just a risk to the victims, he's a risk to himself. And it's just better if we have the guns.
KASTE: The laws prohibiting certain people from owning guns are not new. What is new here in Seattle is this strategic effort to enforce those laws. And it's working if you judge it by all the guns that are stacking up in the police evidence room. And so far, the gun rights movement seems OK with that.
ALAN GOTTLIEB: We've had no complaints from anybody in the public that King County has violated anybody's rights.
KASTE: Alan Gottlieb is with a group called the Second Amendment Foundation.
GOTTLIEB: We also don't want guns in the hands of prohibited people. And so as a result, I think what the county is trying to do is good. We just want to make sure it's done right.
KASTE: For many gun control advocates, this is now looking like the most workable strategy - emphasize improved enforcement of existing gun laws. Even states with permissive regulations, such as Wisconsin, have recently made it easier for police to take guns from domestic abusers. The research has shown how effective this is in preventing violence, especially in the first hours after an incident.
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KASTE: And that's what Seattle Police Sergeant Dorothy Kim is doing right now, knocking on the door of a woman whose boyfriend was just arrested for domestic violence. Kim wants to convince the girlfriend to turn over her partner's gun before he posts bail in a few hours.
DOROTHY KIM: But it gives you guys also a chance to kind of cool off and make sure everyone stays safe. And that's even the point of trying to get the weapon before he's released. It's better for law enforcement. It's better for you. It's better for him, really. So...
KASTE: The girlfriend doesn't need convincing. She hands over his semiautomatic rifle. The officers check it.
HAMLIN: And it is definitely not loaded.
KASTE: And soon they're out on the street with the rifle in hand.
Sergeant Kim says she realizes this is probably temporary. Domestic violence victims often drop charges eventually. And if the boyfriend escapes conviction, he'll get the rifle back. But Sergeant Kim says she feels better knowing that right now, while emotions are running high in that apartment, the gun is out.
Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.
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