Politicians and law enforcement officials across the country are beginning to experiment with new approaches to reducing domestic violence and gun deaths by forcing abusers who aren’t allowed to own guns to actually surrender weapons still in their possession.
Under federal law, people convicted of domestic abuse are prohibited from gun ownership, but enforcement mechanisms like the background check system operate only at the point of sale. It’s fallen to states to make sure people who aren’t supposed to own guns then give up any they may have, and few states have taken the steps to do that.
On Wednesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York announced that he would propose a bill intended to force more convicted domestic abusers to comply with orders to surrender their guns.
“It’s a matter of life and death," says one survivor.
Cuomo’s bill would require judges to order people subject to domestic violence restraining orders to surrender their weapons in all cases. Current law leaves gun surrender up to a judge’s discretion. Judges would be required to order defendants to surrender any guns they already own.
The legislation would also expand the range of crimes that result in an order to surrender firearms, including misdemeanor domestic violence charges like assault.
Cuomo also proposes to expand the surrender requirements for people who get their state-issued firearms license revoked. Currently, New Yorkers whose firearms licenses are suspended or revoked because of a criminal conviction or mental health adjudication are sometimes required to turn over their handguns only. The governor wants them to turn over rifles and shotguns, as well.
Also on Wednesday, Andrew Warren, a state attorney in Florida, announced plans to seize guns already owned by people accused of misdemeanor domestic violence. Police responding to domestic violence calls will now be required to ask victims if their attacker has any guns and run a background check to determine if that person is legally prohibited from owning firearms.
At a defendant’s first court appearance, prosecutors in Warren’s office will ask judges to make relinquishment of guns a condition of bail release. The State Attorney’s Office will also make gun surrender a condition of plea agreements, probation, or entry into diversion programs.
Cuomo and Warren are following in the footsteps of states on the West Coast that have pioneered this more aggressive approach.
In 2013, California allocated $24 million to a task force that confiscates firearms still possessed by people prohibited from owning guns. Officers from the state Department of Justice do twice-weekly sweeps of people who legally bought guns but later became prohibited. The work has been costly, and with thousands of people added to the “armed prohibited persons list” maintained by the state every year, agents have struggled to keep up.
Farther up the coast, Seattle and surrounding King County created a pilot program this year to serve people subject to domestic violence protection and restraining orders with search warrants to look for any gun. After the state passed a law in 2014 requiring people subject to those orders to surrender their weapons, a review led by retired judge Anne Levinson found that the civil court system lacked the capacity to see whether people were being truthful about whether they surrendered their guns.
Christopher Anderson, the director of the domestic violence unit of the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, said that early in 2017, it became clear abusers often simply lied to judges and claimed they had surrendered guns that they still owned.
In late March, Anderson and others in the pilot team went to three hearings at which defendants had to demonstrate they were in compliance with protective orders. One testified he had no firearms, a second said he had sold his guns, and a third failed to show up. When the team got search warrants and researched more records, “we found all three had guns,” Anderson said. “They were all lying.”
In the spring, the city hired a dedicated prosecutor, as well as a court coordinator to review records and alert court officers to the possibility that an abuser may still have weapons. By mid October, the program had seized 129 weapons, surpassing the total of 54 in all of 2015 and 124 in 2016. The unit coordinates with the 39 different police forces throughout the county to pool resources and officers that some smaller towns may lack. The team will consider whether to pursue additional charges like perjury, unlawful possession of firearms, or contempt of court. In November, the county kicked in an additional $600,000.
Anderson said he hopes to bring his program statewide and make it a model for the rest of the country. He explained that it’s important in domestic violence cases to act quickly to seize weapons from abusers because domestic homicides often happen soon after separation or the issuing of a protective order.
Anderson said he is not surprised that so few jurisdictions have taken up such initiatives. Even in his progressive part of the country, enforcement of bans on gun possession has “been neglected because it’s so difficult. It’s old-fashioned police work, which requires a massive amount of effort. There’s a lot of resistance from institutions, because this is expensive and requires bodies.” Anne Levinson said that many policymakers “may think law enforcement is already doing this, and don’t realize this capacity has not been built into the system.”
Yet as the examples of New York and Florida show, more jurisdictions may be starting to realize that the cost in manpower and tax dollars could be worth the reward of lives saved.
Correction: the original version of this article misstated the chronology leading up to the funding of the Seattle-area gun relinquishment team. It has been updated.