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Domestic Violence

Mass Family Shooting in Texas Highlights County’s Domestic Violence Problem

A grisly domestic murder claimed the lives of eight people in Harris County this weekend. For several years, more women were murdered in domestic situations in Harris County than in any other county in the state.

Residents of Harris County, Texas, awoke Sunday to horrific but familiar news: A domestic abuser had murdered his ex-girlfriend. This time, the details were especially grim: Using a gun he reportedly bought online, 48-year-old David Conley killed Victoria Jackson, her partner, and her six children, the oldest of whom was fathered by Conley. All eight victims were discovered by police in Jackson’s home, each bound and with a gunshot wound to the head. According to authorities, Conley terrorized them for hours before their deaths.

The Texas county of four million, which includes the city of Houston, is no stranger to domestic violence homicides: For several years, more women were murdered in domestic situations in Harris County than in any other county in the state. In 2012 alone, 30 women were killed in domestic violence murders in Harris County; in 2014, the total of 19 women killed was surpassed by Dallas County, according to an analysis by the Texas Council on Family Violence. In July of that year, Harris County resident Ronald Lee Haskell was accused of fatally shooting his ex-sister-in-law Katie Stay, her husband, and four of the couple’s five children. Haskell had been previously charged with domestic assault and his ex-wife had acquired a protective order against him. He committed the crime with a stolen handgun.

In 2013, 119 Texas women were killed by an intimate partner, as were an additional 17 bystanders or witnesses to these attacks. Of those victims, 58 percent were shot.

Conley had an extensive criminal history, including cocaine possession and multiple domestic violence offenses. In 2010, Jackson filed a report alleging that Conley held a knife to her throat and wrapped a cord around her baby’s neck, the Houston Chronicle reports. In 2013, after Conley was again arrested for assaulting Jackson, she received an emergency protective order against him. Because of the chaotic environment, a couple of months later the Department of Family Protective Services filed a lawsuit to remove the six children from the home, but it was dismissed in 2014. Conley also struggled with bipolar disorder, according to Jackson’s brother.

While Conley was barred from possessing or purchasing a firearm due to his criminal history, he managed to acquire the firearm used in last weekend’s attack online, according to a local news station citing an unnamed police source. Although federal law requires gun dealers to perform background checks on purchasers when doing business over the Internet as with any other sale, unlicensed sellers in Texas are not required to conduct checks on such sales. The website that facilitated the purchase of the gun used in the shooting has not been identified by authorities.

In Texas, anyone who is subject to a domestic violence protective order is prohibited from possessing a firearm, and those convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors are prohibited from possessing guns for five years. This is weaker than the current federal standard: The Lautenberg Amendment, passed in 1996, mandates a lifetime firearm ban for misdemeanor domestic violence convictions — unless an offender is pardoned or had their criminal record expunged. However, the ATF is responsible for investigating prohibited purchasers and ordering the surrender of their firearms. The organization has only two field divisions in Texas, which together are responsible for the approximately 185,000 incidents of family violence that occur on average in the state each year, making firearms retrieval an uphill battle.

Several states require local police to seize firearms when temporary or permanent protective orders have been issued, and some rely on the accused offender to turn in his or her weapons. But the criteria varies depending on each state. Texas, for its part, does not have a mandatory gun seizure law for domestic abusers. To counteract this, some counties have installed their own rules: Dallas County police have teamed up with a private gun range to confiscate firearms from convicted batterers. When a protective order is issued in Travis County, the Sheriff’s Department asks abusers to hand in their firearms. Bexar County has a similar program. Harris County had a relinquishment program for one year, in 2011, but it was discontinued due to litigation, according to the Harris County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council.

[Photo: AP/David J. Phillip]