Law officers and military personnel who have been convicted of domestic violence are breaking a new federal law every time they pick up a gun.
With federal, state and local law officers totaling about 700,000, and with 1.5 million Americans serving in the military, some criminal justice experts say the lawbreakers could number in the thousands.
The new law, tucked into a federal spending bill that went into effect Sept. 30, applies to anyone convicted of a misdemeanor for using or attempting to use physical force on an intimate partner or a family member. The penalty is up to 10 years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine.
It gives no exemption to the military or law officers, for most of whom a gun is a job requirement. In most states, crimes of domestic violence are prosecuted as misdemeanors.
The law applies equally to private citizens and to FBI and Treasury agents, the Secret Service and U.S. marshals, jail guards and state troopers, housing police and campus security, and every local police officer from chiefs to cops on the beat.
Spot checks by The Associated Press found many law enforcement agencies still unaware of the law this week. This, despite an open letter to all local and state law enforcement officials on Nov. 26 from John Magaw, director of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Officers convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor, Magaw advised, “must immediately dispose of all firearms and ammunition in their possession.”
On Friday, the Justice Department told its agency chiefs that all their law enforcement employees with government-issued firearms must immediately return their weapons to their supervisor if they have a conviction.
All agents in the department, including FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration agents, will get a document they must sign within 10 days stating they were never convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence, said Gregory King, a department spokesman. Lying on that form will be a federal crime.
Few agencies, it seems, know how many of their employees have been found guilty of domestic violence misdemeanors.
“It isn’t something you can just look up. Often, misdemeanor convictions are not listed on rap sheets,” King said.
Air Force Maj. Monica Aloisio, a Defense Department spokesperson, said, “We are not in compliance with the law, and we know we’re not in compliance with the law.”
Some law enforcement agencies are simply hoping the guilty will come forward and turn in their weapons. In others, a few officers have already been disarmed.
One unanswered question is what will happen to law enforcement officers and soldiers who can no longer carry guns.
The Pentagon says it is waiting for advice from the Justice Department on how to apply the law.
Police interviewed disagree about the new law. Some see it as unfair; others see it as the right thing to do.
Pete Brodie, president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, said:
“You don’t see them going after butchers and taking their knives away when they have some type of dispute, or plumbers, taking their wrenches away. It seems like they’re targeting us.”