Last week’s massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, brought renewed scrutiny to the laxity of the state’s gun laws. That has not translated into political will for reform: At a vigil last Thursday night, when a call for new gun legislation was met with a standing ovation, Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott sat on their hands.
But earlier this month, South Carolina acted decisively on one gun reform measure: a bill to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, an effort that was shepherded by Republican state senators. Without the NRA’s participation in the bill-crafting process, however, the initiative, which was signed into law on June 4, likely would have stalled.
The NRA’s stance on such bills marks an apparent change in strategy for the group, which for years fought legislation mandating the surrender of firearms in domestic violence cases. In December, when the South Carolina Legislature introduced a bill barring some domestic abusers from having guns for life, the NRA didn’t issue an incendiary public statement. No call to action was sounded; no lawmakers were trashed in the media. But behind statehouse doors, its lobbyists took a seat at the table and quietly proposed modifications. The group has adopted a similar approach over the last few years with bills that curtailed gun rights for domestic abusers in Louisiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Vermont, Oregon, and Washington state.
In more and more states, the issue of domestic violence is providing a window into how the NRA responds when outright opposition is not politically viable. The group’s shift in tactics and tone reveals an adroitness belied by its unyielding public support for gun rights.
“You can’t come out and say you are for domestic violence,” Dan Schoen, a state representative from Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party who successfully passed a lifetime gun ban for domestic abusers last year, tells The Trace. “If it wasn’t politically damaging to them, I am sure they wouldn’t have been as conciliatory.”
Legislators and victims’ advocates report that working with the NRA on recent domestic violence reforms has been a relatively cordial process, with the group agreeing not to slam the bills in the media or score each lawmaker’s vote with a potentially career-killing letter grade in exchange for a role in crafting the law.
It was a different story five years ago, when Democrats in the Wisconsin Legislature proposed a bill banning the private sale of most firearms to, and prohibiting gun possession for, those convicted of “misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence.” The NRA’s lobbying arm, NRA-ILA, argued that this would “create a new class of people who would be stripped of their Second Amendment rights.” The bill didn’t pass.
But last year, when Republican Garey Bies, a now-retired Wisconsin assemblyman, put forth a bill establishing a streamlined process for seizing guns belonging to those subject to a domestic abuse injunction, the NRA helped draft it. As lawmakers went back and forth with the group, “we stood our ground, and we got them to withdraw their objections,” Bies tells The Trace, adding that the changes the NRA wanted didn’t undermine the core of the bill, which was signed by the state’s conservative governor, Scott Walker. The NRA not only didn’t score the vote, but it also didn’t announce the bill’s passage on the NRA-ILA website — which is unusual, because the NRA-ILA declares its stance on most bills restricting firearms access.
Washington state’s 2014 reform bill, which calls for a judge to take possession of guns belonging to those under restraining and protection orders, became law in much the same way. Republican Sen. Mike Padden said the NRA gave its tacit approval to the bill, and it passed unanimously. That same year, the gun-friendly Vermont Legislature passed a similar bill with input from women’s groups, sportsmen, and the NRA. The collaboration was trumpeted on the NRA-ILA blog. When asked why reform passed with so little turbulence, Rep. Dick Sears said, “It’s hard to argue that murderers and rapists should have guns.”
In Oregon this year, Democratic Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson introduced a bipartisan bill that would prohibit anyone subject to a restraining order or convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from possessing a gun. It would also have expanded the definition of “domestic” to include dating partners. She brought it to her state’s NRA lobbyists as a measure of good faith.
She tells The Trace that two of her colleagues warned her, “‘You’re not going to get anywhere, and they’re not going to respond.’ But you know, it happened. They came into my office. I said, ‘I want a bill that passes. Analyze my bill and tell me what’s good and what isn’t.’” The NRA representatives took issue with Oregon’s definition of domestic partner, saying it couldn’t be more expansive than federal law. Anderson acquiesced, and the Republican caucus worked with the NRA to hammer out the language.
Minnesota’s Schoen, a police officer and lifelong gun owner, recalls the same businesslike atmosphere when successfully negotiating his domestic violence legislation last year, the state’s first in decades. “[The NRA] didn’t feel the need to be the vocal group on this one, and that’s by design,” Schoen says. The Minnesota Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, a group to the right of the NRA, took the lead on negotiations, he explains, while the NRA, which didn’t testify at committee hearings, kept tabs on the collaboration before circling back for final approval on the bill. “Most of the stuff was done by bringing the groups together to try to get an agreement before we got too far into the process,” Schoen says, adding that the NRA signaled its approval early on when it said that no lawmakers’ votes would be scored.
Bies and Schoen say their pro-gun colleagues, both liberal and conservative, voted their conscience, political risk be damned. “I had pro–Second Amendment representatives who got up on the floor and said they never thought they’d be standing here today supporting a bill like this, and that it’s the right thing to do,” Schoen says. “It was pretty courageous.”
In no state has such political courage been more urgently needed than in South Carolina. For the past decade, it has ranked near the top of the list of states with the most intimate-partner deaths, while having some of the weakest domestic violence laws on the books. Moreover, guns are used in 70 percent of domestic abuse deaths in the state. Yet when a dozen reform measures were introduced in 2014, the legislation was killed in committee, even as a bill allowing guns in restaurants and bars breezed into law.
“I want a bill that passes,” an Oregon Democrat told her state’s NRA lobbyists. “Analyze my bill and tell me what’s good and what isn’t.”
Soon after, a seven-part Pulitzer Prize–winning investigation by Charleston’s The Post and Courier pointed out the lunacy of a system that imprisons a man for five years for beating his dog but only 30 days for beating his girlfriend. That got lawmakers’ attention. It also put the NRA in a potentially compromising position: To oppose reform favored by two-thirds of Palmetto State voters might make the group look as if it was siding with wife beaters.
Republican state Sen. Larry Martin, the chief architect of South Carolina’s domestic violence reform, modeled his bill after a 2014 Louisiana law that barred misdemeanor domestic abuse convicts from possessing a firearm for a decade. A federal law, the Lautenberg Amendment, already does this, but only a federal agent can enforce it. There are too few agents operating in each state to police anything more than the most serious cases, which is why it’s necessary for states to craft their own measures.
“I figured if the Louisiana Legislature can pass this with Bobby Jindal signing it into law, there’s absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t be able to pass it,” Martin tells The Trace. To kick-start the process, he asked Nicole Howland, a domestic violence prosecutor employed by the sheriff’s office, how to lower death rates from domestic violence. “Without blinking an eye or pausing, she said, ‘Pass the gun ban,’” he recalls.
After introducing the bill in early December, Martin immediately sent it to the NRA for review. “I’ve had a great relationship for many years with the liaison here in the Southeast, Anthony Roulette,” Martin says. “He said, ‘We’re not gonna come out in favor of it, but we’re not gonna oppose it.’”
But the NRA, which is considered mainstream in South Carolina, couldn’t restrain local, grassroots gun-rights groups, which have a presence in every state. “Oh man, I’m their No. 1 target,” Martin says of the newer groups, noting that he not only spearheaded a gun ban this year but also resisted an open-carry bill last year. “They want to use someone like me as an example of how they’re gonna whip people into shape on Second Amendment issues.”
In the absence of overt NRA resistance, the domestic violence bill seemed sure to pass. Yet another six months went by as Tea Party–aligned House lawmakers from the Upstate region, one of whom called the legislation “nothing but a gun grab,” eliminated the firearms prohibition and replaced it with anti-violence education for elementary students. The Senate bill, pushed by Katrina Shealy — a gun-rights advocate and the state’s lone woman senator, who, at a committee hearing, described her sister’s 30-year marriage to an abuser who later fatally shot himself — survived with its bans intact. It also included the education measure. In total, the compromise bill underwent 34 actions in the months it was stalled in the statehouse.
In the reform laws that finally passed, offenders in South Carolina can be banned from possessing weapons for either life, 10 years, or three years, depending on the severity of the offense. Prosecutors also can push for harsher sentences if crimes were committed in front of children, the logic being that witnessing such violence perpetuates the cycle of domestic abuse. But victims’ advocates are unhappy about a provision, added at the insistence of House lawmakers, that allows some abusers to circumvent a gun ban by pleading guilty to a lesser charge of assault and battery, creating a potentially dangerous loophole.
“Eighty percent of the debate in the House involved the rights of the defendants, not the victims,” Laura Hudson, executive director of the South Carolina Crime Victims’ Council, which was heavily involved in passing the bill, tells The Trace. “The fear for many Southern males was that this [legislation] will interfere with their gun rights.” The possibility that a man could be falsely accused of domestic violence and stripped of his firearms was a major concern for far-right House members.
Hudson understands that position — to a point. “Every citizen of the U.S. should be concerned about losing rights and being falsely accused,” says Hudson, an ardent Second Amendment defender and lifelong sport shooter. “But I don’t support the Second Amendment for people who have proven they can’t control themselves. I think the NRA basically agrees with us.”
But the question remains: How is the NRA picking its battles? Curious about why the group has ceded ground on domestic violence gun bans in some states and not others, Oregon’s Sen. Anderson asked her state’s NRA representative, who told her, “‘I don’t represent that state.’ And he left it at that,” she says.
Another example of the vagaries of the NRA’s approach can be found in Louisiana, where this year the state House considered a follow-up bill to 2014 domestic violence legislation. The new bill initially included a provision that made stalking a felony-level crime and expanded the definition of domestic abuse to include dating partners. But at the NRA’s urging, those measures were stripped, much to the disappointment of Rep. Helena Moreno, who shepherded three pieces of domestic violence legislation to the finish line last year. Sen. Roy Burrell, who passed a 10-year gun ban in the same session, suggested that Jindal signed the 2014 domestic violence legislation partly because he needs women’s votes to ascend to the national stage. “They know who votes and who doesn’t vote,” he says, referring to politicians and the gun lobby. “Many of our women’s organizations have become stronger.”
But not strong enough to withstand a second round with the NRA. Even before her bill was eviscerated at the end of the session, Moreno had admitted defeat.
“I can’t beat the NRA on this one,” she said.
[Photo: Flickr user Corey Holms]