The American Bar Association Thursday criticized efforts to emasculate a proposed federal law banning domestic violence offenders from having guns.
“This legislation no longer protects the victims of family violence from further and more deadly violence involving guns,” the association said.
The Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C., says the troublesome changes bear the fingerprints of U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho. Craig, however, voted for the Senate measure twice, before the House started weakening the bill, his staff said.
The controversy centers on a proposed law drafted by U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. It expands background checks on prospective gun buyers to include domestic violence related crimes and prohibits purchase or possession of a gun by someone with a domestic violence record.
It targets misdemeanors because federal law already prohibits felons from owning guns.
The changes at issue would say that the gun ban only applies to new convictions and only in cases where there was a jury trial. It also would require that people are warned they may lose their guns when they are arrested or be allowed to keep their firearms, said Sue Glick of the Violence Policy Center.
Most misdemeanor domestic violence convictions come at bench trials, where only a judge decides guilt, Glick said.
And if a firearm is involved in family-related assaults, “there’s 12 times more likely to result in a death,” Glick said.
Craig is not interested in a weaker version of the bill, his staff said. “Sen. Craig supports the idea that if you are convicted of domestic violence, you don’t have the right to own a handgun,” said Bryan Wilkes, Craig’s press secretary.
“Not only did he vote for the bills twice, he helped write it,” Wilkes said.
Craig approached Lautenberg with proposed changes to the bill, Lautenberg’s staff said. Lautenberg rejected all but one - requiring that a defendant about to lose his gun rights have the right to an attorney.
The Violence Policy Center, however, believes that Craig’s proposed changes have just resurfaced in the House. “Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) tried to appropriate Craig’s language and put it in the legislation,” Glick said.
Wilkes says that’s untrue and pointed out that Lautenberg praised Craig on the Senate floor for voting for the tougher Senate version of the bill. Lautenberg’s staff won’t comment on whether Barr’s amendments are identical to Craig’s proposed changes.
Local law enforcement and domestic violence foes question whether either version of the bill would work. It wouldn’t have changed the outcome of recent local domestic violence involving guns.
Susan Foutz of Hauser Lake was allegedly shot and killed by Stephen A. Cherry, 46, this spring. Police are still searching for Vern Henry, 44, of Athol who is suspected of shooting and killing his wife and daughter. Neither man has a record of domestic violence convictions.
That points to a need to do a better job of convicting domestic abusers, not a flaw with the proposed law, said Holladay Sanderson, executive director of the Coeur d’Alene Women’s Center. Quincy, Mass., started a coordinated community effort to stop domestic violence and has stopped domestic-violence murders.
“If a guy writes a letter that says I love you, I’m sorry, I apologize, he goes to jail,” Sanderson said. In a place like Quincy, the law has a better chance of being effective.
“I think victims would feel better if someone convicted of domestic violence were not allowed to have guns,” Sanderson said. She still has problems with the law.
If the gun ownership is permanent, it potentially penalizes people who successfully go through domestic violence rehabilitation and depend upon hunting to eat, Sanderson said. In addition, “What if the victim is unjustly convicted of domestic violence, when in fact the spouse or intimate partner was the abuser?” she said.
“She would be in danger. She wouldn’t be able to protect herself.”
Idaho law allows criminals to have their gun ownership rights reinstated, pointed out Kootenai County Sheriff’s Capt. Ben Wolfinger.
Yet, Wolfinger also is leery of the proposal. Only federal agents such as the FBI can enforce federal laws and he doesn’t see North Idaho’s three FBI agents going around confiscating guns from those convicted of domestic violence.
“I don’t want to be on the team to go out in North Idaho to collect somebody’s guns,” Wolfinger said.
Instead, it might be wiser to provide funding for full-time advocates for domestic violence victims to help the overwhelmed volunteers, he said.