August 2013 Bar Bulletin
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August 2013 Bar Bulletin

Should Annie Get Her Gun?

By Sonja Demco


Domestic violence shatters lives, and in the most extreme cases takes them. Guns exacerbate domestic violence situations and victims who have armed and volatile partners feel helpless because the protections meant to keep weapons out of their abusers' lethal hands are insufficient. To compensate for this void, some victims are going so far as to arm themselves to prevent staring down the barrel of an abuser's gun.

While there are differing and passionate perspectives on the interpretation of the Second Amendment, most people will agree that criminals and violent predators should not have the right to enjoy their constitutional right to bear arms. The Gun Control Act of 1968 marked the first step toward restricting gun access by prohibiting felons and other dangerous individuals from owning guns. In a recent decision, the Supreme Court acknowledged that gun restriction is important in cases where the respondent is violent and dangerous, holding that federal and state laws that restrict criminals from having access to guns are constitutional.

Domestic violence victims, however, continue to face hurdles that contradict the Supreme Court's ruling. There is a serious flaw in the system. Victims seek protection from their abusers through the court by pleading for a Domestic Violence Protection Order (DVPO), but abusers are not automatically required to surrender their firearms and weapons. Ironically, the court that deems offenders dangerous also allows offenders to keep their deadly weapons.

To illustrate this point, The New York Times recently covered five Washington cases where women who each was awarded a DVPO were later killed by their abusers in murder-suicides. In three of the cases, the women identified in their petition for a DVPO that the offender possessed firearms and in each instance the presiding judge did not order firearms to be surrendered. Surprisingly, even if the respondent voluntarily agreed to surrender his firearms, which rarely, if ever, happens, King County no longer has a deputy who can accept the weapons.

The problem is that the federal and state laws are not aligned. The state House of Representatives recently sponsored HB 1840, which would bring Washington into compliance with federal law and require courts to order respondents to surrender firearms. It would also order "law enforcement agencies to develop policies and procedures regarding the acceptance, storage and return of weapons required to be surrendered." Due to strong criticism from the National Rifle Association and the Republican-led majority in the Senate, HB 1840 did not pass.

Despite the bill's failure, momentum to protect domestic violence victims continues, with strong support and advocacy for gun protection for domestic violence victims. These domestic violence prevention advocates stand on strong statistics that underscore the prevalence and lethality of gun-related domestic violence deaths.

In 2008, an Injury Prevention report showed that one-fifth of victims were killed within two days after a DVPO was issued, and one-third of victims were killed within one month. A recent study by the Violence Policy Center stated that in 2010 there were 1,800 females shot to death by males and 1,017 of female homicide victims were wives or intimate acquaintances of their killers. These statistics are alarming.

According to domestic violence prevention advocates, in order to effectuate meaningful change, policy makers need to strengthen procedures to protect victims and the Legislature needs to enact a law that requires compulsory gun removal. A well-implemented and executed law would positively impact victims' lives, families and communities.

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