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Connecticut State House Minority Leader Themis Klarides in Hartford with a Republican colleague. Although she initially objected to the domestic violence bill, Klarides became a convert after amendments addressed her concerns about due process.

Domestic Violence

The Compromises That Got One State’s Republicans to Increase Gun Protections for Domestic Violence Victims

Connecticut State House Minority Leader Themis Klarides talks about the tweaks that eased her opposition to a new law requiring alleged abusers to turn in their firearms.

Last month, Connecticut lawmakers passed a bill requiring alleged domestic abusers to turn in their guns 24 hours after being served with a temporary restraining order. The measure is intended to protect victims of intimate partner violence in the dangerous period after the granting of a temporary restraining order, or TRO. Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy signed the bill on Tuesday, and when it takes effect on October 1, Connecticut will be the 16th state to remove guns from alleged abusers prior to a full hearing for a final order of protection.

Connecticut already has some of the nation’s strictest gun laws. It has long required would-be owners to not just pass a background check, but secure a permit from law enforcement before they can possess a new Glock or Ruger. Following the Sandy Hook school shooting, it expanded its list of banned assault weapons and imposed a 10-round limit on magazines. But when an earlier version of the domestic violence protections were brought up last year, the effort faltered under the threat of a Republican filibuster.

“We learned a lot from the bill not passing the previous year,” says Karen Jarmoc, the president of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and an advisor on the bill.

To ensure that the bill got through on the second try, the legislation’s Democratic champions offered skeptical colleagues a set of concessions that may point the way toward overcoming objections to tougher gun relinquishment laws elsewhere.

An essential convert to the reform side was House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, an attorney who has volunteered with a domestic violence victims’ group for two decades. Worried that falsely accused abusers could be unduly stripped of their Second Amendment rights, she had balked at the bill in 2015. But this year, proponents won her over with tweaks to key provisions.  

“Clearly, when there is a piece of legislation put forth that has constitutional ramifications, it takes a higher level of scrutiny to figure out how it needs to be written,” Klarides tells The Trace.

The back-and-forth paid off: In the House, the bill passed 104-42, with almost every Democrat voting in favor, along with 21 Republicans. In the Senate, the bill passed 23-13.

Removing firearms from a violent relationship soon after a temporary restraining order is issued can save lives. The presence of a gun in a violent relationship increases the chance of a fatality by 500 percent, and for abusers, a restraining order can be a triggering event. “It might be the first time their victim is taking back control,” says Jarmoc. A 2009 study found that cities in states with relinquishment laws had 25 percent fewer domestic gun homicides compared to cities in states without them.

Connecticut averaged a domestic homicide every 26 days between 2000 and 2012. According to Jarmoc, roughly 8 percent of those seeking a TRO in the state in an average year indicate on their application that their alleged abuser owns at least one firearm.

Temporary restraining orders are intended to provide immediate protection. It’s only during a subsequent hearing on whether to convert a TRO to a final protective order that a court rules on whether the victim’s claims are valid. Gun advocates argue that laws that impose a gun ban based only on a TRO risk improperly denying the rights of firearm owners in cases where a court later decides a permanent order isn’t merited.

Klarides raised that very concern in her initial objections to the Connecticut legislation, telling a reporter last year that the bill would “trample on … due process to fix a problem that unfortunately is not really fixable.”

Democratic Representative William Tong, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a proponent of the legislation, says he reminded critics of the bill that longstanding requirements of TROs already temporarily deny accused abusers some rights in order to increase the safety of possible victims.

For instance, a man slapped with a temporary restraining order by a domestic partner is prohibited from speaking to her, and sometimes their children, prior to a full court hearing. He can also be ordered by a judge to leave his home, even if his name is on the mortgage or lease. “There’s no reason a court can’t also say, ‘Put your guns to the side,’” Tong says.

“All this arm-waving about how it’s a gun confiscation law — it’s not,” he continues. “It’s a temporary hold. It lets everybody take a deep breath, reduce the temperature, and figure it out before somebody gets killed.”

Under the current system, a full court hearing on converting a temporary restraining order to a permanent order is held within 14 days of the TRO being issued. The compromise Connecticut lawmakers struck was an amendment that shortens that period to seven days when the person seeking the order checks a box on the application indicating that the accused abuser is a gun owner. Klarides says she would have preferred a hearing within 24 to 48 hours, but Connecticut doesn’t have night and weekend courts, making such expedited hearings impossible.

Even more important than due process concerns, Klarides says, was the fact that the state had no protocols for returning guns after a restraining order ultimately expires. Before the bill’s passage, the subjects of expired orders called the state police and made an appointment to get their guns back, a process that had no formalized deadline. Under the new law, subjects of expired orders will get their guns back within five days. To gun owners, “that was the biggest deal with this legislation,” Klarides said.

By the time the bill was up for a vote this year, it was Klarides who persuaded her fellow Republican lawmakers not to stall the bill again.

“I wouldn’t have voted for it last year, I’ll tell you that,” she tells The Trace. Though the bill is “nowhere near perfect,” it “balanced the needs of domestic violence victims, which are certainly very important, and the rights of firearm owners.”

“We see this domestic violence tragedy occur on a daily basis,” she says. “And if it will save lives, I think we have to be willing to give it a shot.”

[Photo: AP/Jessica Hill]