Domestic violence bill draws objections from guns rights groups

 

From left, former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, D-Wilmington, Rep. Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, and Attorney General Matthew P. Denn  are in support a bill that cracks down on firearm owners given protection from abuse orders. Ms. Giffords was wounded in a 2011 shooting in Tucson, Ariz, that killed six people.  (Delaware State News/Matt Bittle)

From left, former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, D-Wilmington, Rep. Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, and Attorney General Matthew P. Denn are in support a bill that cracks down on firearm owners given protection from abuse orders. Ms. Giffords was wounded in a 2011 shooting in Tucson, Ariz, that killed six people. (Delaware State News/Matt Bittle)

DOVER — Some lawmakers and activists are backing a bill that would require greater compliance for individuals prohibited from having firearms, but gun rights groups are pushing back. Supporters call the bill a key step in preventing domestic violence, while opponents condemn it for what they see as blocking key rights.

Introduced earlier this week, Senate Bill 83 stipulates an individual ordered by Family Court to turn over his or her firearms do so immediately if mandated by police or within 24 hours if no police command is given. Currently, a Family Court commissioner can include in a protection from abuse order a provision requiring the recipient surrender all of his or her guns, but no timetable is provided.

Senate Bill 83 also requires the gun owner document the transfer to police. Additionally, it adds ammunition as a prohibited item and grants the law enforcement agency storing the firearms the right to “charge the respondent a reasonable fee for the storage of any firearms and ammunition relinquished pursuant to a protective order.”

Lawmakers, activists and others spoke at a news conference Thursday designed to promote the bill, with gun control activist and former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords present. A Democrat from Arizona, Ms. Giffords was wounded in a 2011 shooting in Tucson, Ariz, that killed six people.

She urged the public to support the proposal.

“Dangerous people with guns are a threat to women,” she said in brief comments to the General Assembly and then to a group of supporters gathered at the news conference. “Criminals with guns, abusers with guns, stalkers with guns, that makes gun violence a women’s issue.

“For mothers, for families, for me and you. Women can lead the way. We stand for common sense, we stand for responsibility.”

But while backers feel the bill is an obvious one that could prevent violence, others are doubtful.

The Delaware State Sportsmen’s Association, the state affiliate of the National Rifle Association, has been outspoken about past bills focused on gun control. On Wednesday, just a day after Senate Bill 83 was filed, the DSSA created a page on its website urging members to oppose the legislation.

Thomas Shellenberger, the DSSA’s public information officer, said it “violates the due process provision of the United States Constitution” and removes the “fundamental” right to bear arms.

The bill, he said, is a product of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has been an advocate for stricter gun control.

“Having lost on the federal level, they’re now spending lots and lots of money trying to kill the Second Amendment by death by a thousand cuts,” Mr. Shellenberger said.

Supporters of the proposal feel it will protect victims of domestic abuse. According to the Delaware Coalition Against Gun Violence, 53 people were fatally shot in Delaware during domestic violence incidents from 1996 to 2013. The group reports abuse victims are five times more likely to be killed if the abuser has a gun.

By law, individuals convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence are barred from gun ownership. The Delaware Code protects family members, spouses, former spouses, individuals whom the assailant has a child with and individuals whom the assailant lives with as victims of misdemeanor domestic violence. Senate Bill 83 would expand the definition of misdemeanor domestic violence, applying it to other categories: people the assailant had lived with in the five years preceding the offense and people he or she had dated within the previous five years.

Rep. Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, is the main House sponsor. She thinks the bill may prove somewhat controversial, although she questioned the stance taken by opponents.

“You’re always going to have gun activists,” she said afterward. “That would probably be the biggest one. They’ve already started coming and knocking on my door, but you know, this is a common-sense piece of legislation and I don’t see how seizing a gun from an abuser has anything to do with gun rights.”

She expects the vote will likely fall along party lines, meaning Democrats could force it through by dint of sheer numbers.

Despite Rep. Longhurst’s conviction the bill is not intended to strip Delawareans of their rights, Mr. Shellenberger is adamant the proposal would be overreaching.

Comparing gun ownership with the fundamental right to cast a ballot, he said there would be an “uproar” if lawmakers tried to stop people from voting. A practicing Family Court lawyer, he’s dealt with a large number of protection from abuse orders.

A PFA simply requires a preponderance of evidence, a lesser standard than the reasonable doubt practice used for criminal cases. If someone is deemed a threat, officials should charge him or her with a crime rather than using the “Band-Aid” solution offered by Family Court, he said.

He believes instructing law enforcement to handle more duties poses a logistical problem. On this area, he’s not alone.

While the bill is backed by the Attorney General’s Office, some police officers are in opposition.

“We support the concept of trying to protect the victims. However, this legislation, the way it’s currently written, I think it puts a lot of extra work on law enforcement that we don’t necessarily agree with,” said William Bryson, chief of the Camden Police Department and head of the Delaware Police Chiefs’ Council.

Speaking on behalf of the council, he said he wanted to meet with lawmakers and try to change some of the language.

He took issue with the fact the proposal would require police officers to take firearms handed over by a prohibited person to a designated location.

“Let’s say they turn it in to Selbyille and the proper agency is Wilmington. Why is it our problem to transport those?” he asked.

He criticized a provision allowing officers the right to charge a fee for storage, calling it unclear.

The bill would mandate officers who believe an individual has not surrendered all of his or her guns get a warrant from the courts. Currently, they have authority to do so from Family Court without the need for a warrant, Chief Bryson said. That portion, he said, makes it more difficult for officers to enforce the law.

Despite the areas he objected to, he said he’ll support the bill if changes are made.

Rep. Longhurst is hoping to get the bill passed by the time the Legislature goes on break after June 30. The bill has been placed in the Senate Judiciary Committee, and a hearing could draw a large crowd of both supporters and opponents.

How lawmakers feel in regard to the impact on gun owners figures to determine the bill’s success. For backers, the choice is clear: the proposal could prevent violent crimes.

“We cannot afford not to act,” Rep. Longhurst said.

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