By Marie Tessier
Monday, December 29, 2003
Gun-safety laws--often ignored by law-enforcers and elusive for potential victims--are the focus of a national campaign to stem domestic-violence bloodshed.
(WOMENSENEWS)--In every way she knew how, Glenda Meraz had implored the police and the courts to protect her baby daughter from her husband's death threats.
She called 911. She spoke to police. She obtained a protective order.
As Meraz sought a divorce--the most dangerous time for battered women and children--she askedthe divorce court to block Gustavo Gonzalez from seeing their daughter, Gessica Gonzalez, just 1 year old.
"I told them that he had weapons," the Los Angeles native told Women's eNews. "There's a lot that someone should have done from the beginning, but they don't do much."
Police said they could not arrest Gonzalez until he had acted on his threats (even though California and other states' laws prohibit criminal threatening). The judge in the divorce proceedings told Meraz that the father's right to see Gessica outweighed her reports of death threats, which the father had denied.
By the time Glenda Meraz's husband had taken the toddler into the Angeles National Forest in the hills above Los Angeles, it was too late. Gonzalez faced no major obstacle before he put a gun to the toddler's head and squeezed the trigger.
Gessica was killed Feb. 2, 1998, nine days before her second birthday. Gonzalez then turned the gun on himself and committed suicide.
Glenda Meraz's horrifying story only gets worse: Two more people would die and Meraz herself would sustain severe gunshot wounds before the shooting ended.
The experience also propelled Meraz into the public eye as a spokesperson for a national campaign to help take guns away from the most dangerous domestic violence abusers in the country.
A key strategy of the campaign--being run by domestic-violence coalitions in all 50 states run, financed and organized by Americans for Gun Safety--is to help women such as Meraz better understand and enforce their legal rights to have law enforcement disarm their abusers.
"Women should not have to be lawyers to be protected under the law," says Deborah Barron of Americans for Gun Safety, a Washington project of the San Francisco-based Tsunami Fund. "These laws exist, they're simply not enforced, and we are trying to change that."
To that end, state coalitions of domestic-violence agencies have worked with the educational arm of Americans for Gun Safety to craft brochures tailored to state laws. In the coming weeks and months those brochures will be distributed through the domestic-violence agencies in each state and, whenever possible, through court systems and other sites, Barron says.
"Sometimes, even the judges don't know about these laws, so the education part is important at a lot of levels," says Barron, who manages the domestic violence project at Americans for Gun Safety. "The courts and law enforcement need to understand their responsibility to keep women and children safe."
Through its lobbying arm, Americans for Gun Safety has helped broker legislation depolarizing gun control and the Second Amendment right to bear arms. Earlier this year, for instance, it helped secure new funding in Congress for meaningful background checks for gun buyers, which the National Rifle Association backed because it could speed up many legal gun purchases that are now often bogged down.
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence Executive Director Rita Smith says that education and enforcement efforts on guns have been uneven around the country. Getting the information out to court clerks, judges and battered women could strengthen the system. "Not all victims know about all their options," Smith says. "If she's given all of her options all of the time and we can get the criminal justice system involved in enforcing restraining orders at the level they should be, it may help a great deal."
Under federal law, people subject to protective orders are not supposed to own or purchase firearms, but that law has been rarely enforced, advocates say. In some states, such as California, abusers who are subject to a restraining order may not legally own, buy or possess any firearm during the terms of the order under state law. In other states, such as Maine, a woman seeking a protection-from-abuse order would need to specifically address weapons in her complaint and ask the court to remove them.
Three weeks after her daughter's murder, Meraz went back to work at an electrical distributing company. There, she says, she received a threatening phone call from her brother-in-law, who continued to blame her for the murder-suicide. She asked him if he was threatening her. She says he answered her by saying "I have to do what I have to do."
Again, Meraz phoned the police to report the threats. This time, police made an arrest, and Ralph Gonzalez was jailed. Before long, however, he was out on $50,000 bail.
Glenda Meraz went into hiding for several weeks, but emerged March 30, 1998, to testify at a hearing in her brother-in-law's case in Huntington Park Municipal Court, in the same building that houses the police department. She told the judge that she feared for her life and wanted her brother-in-law prosecuted, and left the courthouse at the conclusion of the hearing. Once outside, she and a friend suddenly realized that Ralph Gonzalez was in his car racing the wrong way up the street, aiming straight at them.
They ran for their lives.
When Ralph Gonzalez stopped, opened the trunk and pulled out a handgun, they continued to run. Then the grieving mother stopped to face her assailant, unafraid, she says, of a death that she believed would reunite her with her daughter in the afterlife. "I could see the red laser on my body," Meraz says. "I heard him fire one, two, three, four, and after the fifth shot, my body collapsed. I was praying. Then I turned and saw him put the gun in his mouth, and he pulled the trigger."
In the middle of the horror, a bullet crashed into a nearby house and killed 59-year-old Barbara Clark, who had been watching television, according to the Los Angeles Times. Meraz, then 26, had been shot twice in the neck, and another bullet entered her chest and collapsed her right lung. One long bone in her right forearm was shattered, and had to be reconstructed with metal rods and pins. That arm now causes her chronic pain.
Though Meraz would survive, four people by then were dead; Gessica Gonzalez, Gustavo Gonzalez, Ralph Gonzalez and Barbara Clark. And all of it could have been prevented had officials done a better job protecting Glenda Meraz and her daughter from the violence a lot sooner, Meraz and others say.
Meraz, who was linked to the national campaign by domestic-violence advocates in California, says perhaps her family would have been safer if she had had proper guidance on having the guns taken away from batterers.
She hopes her story will help prevent future violence.
Marie Tessier is a freelance writer who lives in Maine and writes frequently about domestic violence.
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