Law aims at gun-related domestic violence

Posted Nov. 17, 2009, at 9:42 p.m.

Horace W. Salley III is one of the reasons U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., in 1996 sponsored a bill making it a federal crime for a person convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence to possess a gun for any reason. The law also made it a crime to have a gun if a protection-from-abuse order is in place.

Salley, 34, of Smyrna is serving a 14-year sentence in Maine State Prison for gross sexual assault, assault and tampering with a witness. He was convicted on those charges in November 2007, a year after his arrest, after a jury trial in Aroostook County Superior Court in Houlton.

After he completes the state prison term, Salley will serve an additional five years and three months in federal prison for illegally possessing a firearm. He was prohibited from possessing guns due to his conviction in 2003 of a misdemeanor assault on his then-girlfriend.

Congress enacted the legislation with the broad purpose of addressing the widespread problem of gun-related domestic violence by taking guns out of the hands of all individuals with a history of domestic abuse. It is named after Lautenberg, its primary sponsor.

It’s almost certain Lautenberg had never heard of, let alone met, Salley when he sponsored his amendment. But given Salley’s history — outlined in documents filed in federal court in Bangor — he would have been one of the reasons the senator cited in advocating for the bill’s passage.

In putting the bill forward, the senator emphasized the link between the availability of guns in the home and statistics that showed victims of domestic homicides often had been abused and-or threatened with weapons for years.

There were 31 homicides in Maine in 2008, the last year for which statistics are available, according to the Department of Public Safety. Twelve of the victims died from gunshot wounds and four of those homicides were related to domestic violence.

Salley never killed a partner, but he appears to have abused every woman with whom he ever had a relationship. The abuse he inflicted on four women and two of their children between 1992 and 2006 was detailed in court documents.

When the woman he lived with from 1992 to 1998 cut her hair without his permission, Salley loaded her and her three children into his car and forced her to drive for several hours into the North Maine Woods. Once there, he allegedly dragged her out of the car by her hair and told the children he was going to kill her, then come back for them. Only by begging for her life did she survive, according to court documents.

After the next woman Salley lived with left him in 2002, he broke into her apartment and severely beat her. He broke her nose, knocked out several teeth and reinjured the ribs he had broken in an earlier fight, according to court documents.

A few years later, he held his infant son in his lap and wrapped the baby’s finger around the trigger of his rifle, court documents state. Another time, he told his wife that the only way he would ever allow her to leave him was “in a casket.”

Serial abusers are not uncommon, according to advocates for victims of domestic violence.

The 911 call from Salley’s wife that led to his arrest on state charges was one of more than 5,700 reports of domestic violence between July 1, 2006, and June 30, 2007, to law enforcement, according to the Department of Public Safety.

A gun was used to threaten the victim in less than 1 percent of them, according to statistics gathered annually by the department. Personal weapons — hands, feet and-or fists — were used in 97.5 percent. Other kinds of weapons, such as knives, were used in the rest.

One of the questions police officers routinely ask victims of domestic violence is, “Does your partner have any guns at the house?” If the answer is yes, the guns usually are confiscated while the case is pending, since protection-from-abuse orders often are filed against an alleged perpetrator.

Victims, however, don’t often mention that their abusers have guns, Margo Batsie, the hot line coordinator for Spruce Run, a shelter for victims of domestic violence in Maine, said recently.

“Firearms come up from time to time,” she said. “But we have more guns than people in Maine, so I think it doesn’t come up more often because it’s fairly commonplace [to have guns in a home].”

Criminal charges are not pursued in every case of suspected domestic violence assault reported to law enforcement officials. During fiscal year 2007, which ended June 30, 2007, state prosecutors filed charges in just over 5,000 cases, according to statistics gathered by the Maine Attorney General’s Office. Of those, slightly more than 2,800 defendants were convicted, 26 were acquitted and charges were dismissed in just over 1,500.

Out of those, a couple of dozen, including Salley’s case, were turned over to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for prosecution under the Lautenberg Amendment. Nearly all resulted in a conviction and some time in prison for the defendant.

In Maine, the federal prosecution of gun crimes rose dramatically from 2000 to 2004 under a program called Project Safe Neighborhoods. The final report on the project, submitted earlier this year to the National Institute of Justice, showed that the prosecution of all gun crimes in U.S. District Court in Maine rose from eight cases in fiscal year 2000 to 52 in fiscal year 2007, an increase of 425 percent.

The project, aimed at decreasing gun violence across the country, provided funding to set up anti-violence task forces that included local, state and federal law enforcement officers. It also provided money for training so a small town police officer, county sheriff’s deputy, state police and local prosecutors understood how to refer cases to the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices for prosecution.

One of those task forces was credited by the U.S. Attorney’s Office with aiding in the prosecution of Salley under the Lautenberg Amendment.

Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross said recently that federal officials have been very cooperative in working with his department.

“Sometimes common sense says something needs to be done about a particular individual, but state law doesn’t fit,” he said. “Sometimes, federal law does.”

Neale Adams, district attorney for Aroostook County, said the federal gun statutes give state prosecutors “another tool” in dealing with serial abusers such as Salley and individuals local police know are dangerous.

“The work the U.S. attorney has done to prosecute abusers is an amazing part of our community response to domestic violence and one more way to hold abusers accountable,” Batsie said.

The advocate for victims said local authorities do a very good job of informing people that they cannot have guns when a protection-from-abuse order is filed. A video shown to defendants facing charges of domestic violence assault also informs them that a conviction would mean they would not be able to have a gun again.

“Our Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative is one of the most positive I’ve seen in my 32 years in this office,” U.S. Attorney Paula Silsby said recently. “We’ve engaged a vast array of stakeholders on a common issue to take guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them and reducing gun violence.”

On the Web: Gun Violence in Maine, Muskie Center, USM, http://muskie.usm.maine.edu/justiceresearch/Publications/Adult/Gun_Violence_How_Big_is_the_Problem_in_Maine.pdf

jharrison@bangordailynews.net

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