By Marie Tessier
Friday, June 13, 2008
Landmark laws passed in the 1990s aimed at keeping guns from abusers have fallen short of their mark, say law enforcement personnel and advocates. Latest story in our "Dangerous Trends, Innovative Responses" series.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Early last year, Monique Vance appeared to be a case study in Washington state law enforcement managing to keep women safe.
Her estranged husband, Karl Vance--scheduled to go to trial on charges of misdemeanor domestic violence assault--was subject to a protection order. When a municipal court judge in early 2007 issued the protective order, he ordered Vance to turn over firearms to the King County Sheriff's Department.
Using model procedures, the judge notified Vance that he was barred under state and federal laws from possessing guns and risked a felony violation of federal gun laws, among other crimes. A federal conviction could carry as much as a 10-year sentence in prison.
Karl Vance turned over a firearm. It was an air pistol, according to news reports.
But two months later, in April 2007, witnesses say they heard shots fired inside an apartment building in Des Moines, Wash., and then saw Monique Vance fleeing barefoot, screaming, "He's trying to kill me," according to Karl Vance's court indictment.
Then, witnesses told investigators, Karl Vance followed his wife outside in plain view, and shot her with a .357-caliber handgun, according to court documents.
Monique Vance died on a doorstep with multiple bullet wounds in her torso. She was declared dead at the scene, court records say. Karl Vance has pleaded not guilty to a murder charge and is scheduled to go on trial later this year.
Whatever the verdict in this case, the allegations seem all too familiar to advocates for battered women and law enforcement officials. Fourteen years after the Violence Against Women Act was passed in 1994, they say achieving a national vision of disarming domestic-violence offenders has proven elusive in most parts of the country.
"It seems like a great idea, to take guns away from batterers," says Merril Cousin, executive director of the King County Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Seattle. "It's more complicated than it sounds, because it depends on finding out that a firearm is involved, it often requires a court order, and then you have to get the order enforced."
Guns are used to kill most victims of intimate partner homicides, though the proportion has been falling, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
In recent years, about 1,200 women have died annually in intimate partner homicides, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. About a third of female homicide victims in the United States are killed by a partner or former partner. Women ages 25 to 49 are at higher risk, as are African American women and Native American women.
In the Vance case, prosecutors say it is not clear exactly how Karl Vance obtained the handgun that they allege led to his wife's death. It is clear, however, that he did not own it, a spokesperson for the King County prosecutor said.
There are 283 million privately owned guns in the United States, according to the anti-gun Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C. Licensed firearm dealers sell more than 4 million guns each year, and up to 2 million more are sold through other venues. Some sales are unregulated.
Background checks that went into effect in 1994 are not required for all sales, and illegal gun sales are thriving, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington, D.C.
Under federal gun laws passed in the 1990s, people convicted of misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence and people subject to domestic violence protective orders were banned from possessing firearms.
That was a switch from an earlier era, when prohibitions were only placed on convicted felons that left many batterers--typically pleaded down and convicted on misdemeanor charges--still legally armed.
In the years since the breakthrough laws took effect, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, has prevented thousands of gun sales, though the records remain incomplete. In 2006 alone, nearly 10,000 firearms sales were halted because a gun buyer had a domestic violence misdemeanor conviction or was subject to a protective order, according to data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Another 8,000 firearms transfers or permits were denied by state agencies conducting background checks for concealed weapons, hunting permits or other purposes, mostly using NICS data.
But only eight offenders were prosecuted in federal courts for possessing a firearm after a domestic violence conviction in 2006, data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms indicate. That year, only 28 people nationwide were charged with falsifying information on the background check for any reason.
To hold batterers accountable, at least nine states have passed mandatory gun bans when a protection order is issued, similar to the federal ban, so that investigators and prosecutors have an easier time coordinating victim safety. At least as many states give judges the discretion to prohibit firearms, says Emily Sack, a professor of criminal law at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I.
New Jersey law gives police much broader authority to find and remove weapons by requiring that a search warrant be issued with protective orders, Sack says. In Arizona, police have a detailed mechanism to seize weapons and to hold them if there is reasonable cause to believe that returning the firearms would endanger anyone in the home.
"We want to disarm the batterer before the violence escalates to the level of a felony," says Mark Hanna of the King County Firearms Forfeiture Program in Seattle, a sheriff's department agency that works with law enforcement and specialized domestic violence courts. "It is critical to victim safety that we make the misdemeanors matter."
Ed Googins, police chief in South Portland, Maine, says officers in his department do not depend on specific firearms laws. "We look for opportunities to make people safe," Googins says. "Sometimes we can do that simply by asking a victim if we can take the gun for safekeeping."
The South Portland police also say it takes every opportunity to seize weapons as evidence of a crime. "We follow up on defendants 24 or 48 hours after a call, and that's when we find violations of bail conditions or protection orders, so we can take a firearm into evidence, and that's about a third of the time," Googins says. "It's really a matter of using the laws we have available and using them to our advantage to make things safer for the victim."
Marie Tessier is an independent journalist who writes frequently about violence against women and legal affairs.
This series is supported by a special grant from Mary Kay Inc.
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