By Tracy Connor, Staff Writer, NBC News
Federal law requires anyone served with an order of protection to give up their guns, but it's rarely enforced at the state level, leaving domestic violence victims in jeopardy.
One community in California, though, is using a federal grant to tackle the problem -- with promising results, as a report by NBC News' "Rock Center with Brian Williams" found.
San Mateo County Deputy Sheriff John Kovach and his partner head a team that tracks down and confiscates these weapons one by one. Last year, his department collected 324 firearms and for the third year didn't have a single gun-related domestic violence homicide.
"We have shotguns, rifles, pretty much any kinda gun you can imagine," Kovach said as he displayed the contents of his gun vault.
"Right here we have a submachine gun that was actually purchased illegally in Nevada and brought into the State of California. And this was recovered during one of our investigations of a restraining order."
When someone in his county takes out an order of protection, Kovach interviews them to find out what kind of guns the other party might have. Then he goes to the home to serve the order and take the weapons.
Sometimes the owner says they don't have the weapons any longer; sometimes they say they're at a relative's home, which means another stop for Kovach and his partner.
The sleuthing and legwork is worth it, he said.
"I've worked in a lot of different areas of law enforcement," Kovach said. "They are all satisfying, but nothing like this."
He noted that responding to a domestic violence incident is among the most perilous calls for a police officer. Getting guns out of the hands of those with restraining orders means other cops -- along with civilians -- are safe, he said.
In Spokane, Wash., mother of two Stephanie Holten learned how ineffective an order of protection can be if the other person is still armed.
After she told her ex-husband she was seeing someone else, he threatened her, she said.
"He said to my face that he would come over to my house and put a gun in my mouth and pull the trigger, that he would blow my head off," she said.
She filed a police report and obtained an order of protection. Police served her ex with the order, but no one took his gun. Nine hours later, he was at Holten's door with the weapon.
"He starts yelling at me, 'I was served a protection order today and I'm going to kill you. I'm going to shoot you,'" Holten recalled.
"I'm on my knees by the living room couch and he's standing over me. And I am looking at this gun barrel."
Secretly Holten used her cell phone to call 911, and police rescued her. Her ex-husband is in prison now.
Kelly Starr of the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence said the episode could easily have had a more tragic ending.
"When there is a gun around is when we see domestic violence turn to murder," she said. "What we know is that domestic violence victims are five times more likely to be killed if there's a gun around."
Statistics like that are why Kovach believes he is making a difference.
"I know I am saving lives," he said.