When Robert Lewis Dear opened fire at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, last week, it was far from his first violent act. The South Carolina native was charged in 1992 with first-degree sexual misconduct after he allegedly sexually assaulted a woman at knifepoint. In 1997, his then-wife, Pamela Dear, filed a report with police alleging that Dear locked her out of their house and “hit her and pushed her out the window.” In 2002, Lynn Roberts, Dear’s next-door neighbor in Walterboro, South Carolina, obtained an order of protection after she discovered him leering at her while hiding in her bushes, and “making unwanted advancements” for nearly a year.
While reports indicate that none of the accusations levied against Dear resulted in a conviction, his history is a reminder of a pattern, borne out by high-profile examples and hard data, wherein a domestic abuser graduates to gun violence. And a policy system that often allows abusers to keep their guns when they should be removed.
One 2007 analysis of more than 300,000 ex-convicts by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that offenders with domestic violence charges were the most likely of any other group studied to commit another violent felony. Domestic violence felons experienced a recidivism rate for violent felonies of 19 percent, compared to 13.7 percent for offenders with felony assault convictions, for instance.
“Men who commit violence rehearse and perfect it against their families first,” Pamela Shifman and Salamishah Tillet wrote in a February op-ed in The New York Times. “Women and children are target practice, and the home is the training ground for these men’s later actions.”
Some of America’s most deadly shootings provide stark examples of that progression. The wife of James Huberty, who killed 21 people at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, California, in 1984, reported him to authorities after a bout of violence resulted in her “messed up” jaw. Six months before he killed nine and wounded four in a General Motors car loan office in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1990, James Pough was served with a temporary injunction by his wife, who accused him of twice putting a shotgun to her head. George Jo Hennard stalked two sisters and their mother in his Belton, Texas, neighborhood four months before he fatally shot 23 people in a Luby’s restaurant in 1991.
A similar story emerged during this year’s string of high-profile shootings. Before Dear, there was John Houser, who fatally shot two women and injured nine others in a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana, in July. In 2008, his wife and daughter filed an order of protection against him after repeated threats and “acts of family violence.” Despite that behavior, and a history of mental illness, Houser was able to legally purchase the Hi-Point .40 caliber pistol he used in his rampage.
Federal law bars convicted batterers from buying firearms, but often little is done to separate them from any weapons they already own.
Federal law has provisions meant to keep guns out of the hands of abusers, but only half of states (along with Washington, D.C.) authorize or require courts to order an abuser to surrender their firearms after a domestic violence protective order is issued. Allowing an abuser to remain armed can have deadly consequences. Domestic violence assaults with firearms are 12 times more likely to result in death than assaults without them.
Some states have moved to fill this legal void. California has operated the Armed and Prohibited Persons System (APPS) for nearly a decade, which checks gun owners against databases of convictions, mental health determinations, warrants, and restraining orders. Yet even it has its flaws: A May Los Angeles Times editorial noted that that APPS has a backlog of 16,350 names, even though the legislature approved $24 million in 2013 to hire three dozen additional investigators to clear it.
South Carolina — where Dear lived for at least two decades, and where his criminal record originates — passed a sweeping domestic violence reform law in June, yet the state still does not require domestic abusers to surrender guns or ammunition they already own once they’ve been convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence. A law that would create such a mandate has been stalled in committee since January.
New Jersey, a state with some of the nation’s toughest gun laws, also does not require domestic violence offenders to relinquish their firearms. Last month, Governor Chris Christie vetoed a measure that would have closed the gap in state law, but lawmakers are planning an override vote before the legislative session ends on January 11.
[Photo: Mark Reis/The Gazette via AP, Pool]