Bill broadening gun seizure law gets panel’s OK

Posted March 03, 2010, at 9:55 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Members of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee have voted to allow a bill to be considered this session that would require police to seize all guns in the possession of a person charged with a domestic violence offense.

Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, co-chairwoman of the committee, said the bill is based on language from a working group created by law last year to examines issues concerning domestic violence and firearms. The unnamed working group was ordered to report back to the Criminal Justice Committee this session.

“The committee felt this issue is one of critical importance,” Haskell said. “Domestic violence and guns are a bad mix.”

Before the committee voted to bring the issue to the full Legislature, they asked a lot of questions of Public Safety Commissioner Anne Jordan, who chaired the working group.

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Jordan said current law allows seizure of a firearm used in a case of domestic violence, and this proposal would require seizure of any gun the person has, whether it was used in the domestic assault or not.

“Right now we cannot seize a gun unless it is evidence in the case,” Jordan said.

She said no matter how violent the attack by the alleged perpetrator of domestic violence, that person currently cannot be required to give up possession of any firearm they own. She said sometimes the police officer is successful in talking the person into voluntarily turning over any gun.

The proposal would have the judge at the person’s bail hearing decide the disposition of the guns as part of that process. A bail hearing must occur within 48 hours of an arrest.

While the committee voted to bring the measure before the Legislature, lawmakers on the committee also raised many concerns.

For example, Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, a retired state trooper, questioned how small police departments would handle the logistics of seizing and storing what could be a significant number of firearms.

“You could be talking about a trunk full of weapons,” he said.

Jordan said the consensus of the panel was they would rather work out solutions to the logistics of the problem than see those guns in the hands of a person charged with a domestic violence assault.

Rep. Stephen Hanley, D-Gardiner, expressed concern over the working group’s recommendation that federal prosecutors take the lead in domestic violence cases. He said the state should be responsible, but Jordan said her group unanimously recommended the federal approach.

“Federal prosecutors have, quite frankly, incredible resources,” she said. “And quite frankly, they also have rather stiff penalties.”

Panel members also were concerned that there are only two federal courthouses in the state so someone charged federally may be tried in a court some distance from their home.

Rep. James Schatz, D-Blue Hill, said the panel should move the working group recommendations as legislation to allow a public discussion of the proposals. But he also questioned Jordan about how the legislation might address false domestic violence claims.

Jordan cited a recent survey of judges, magistrates, lawyers and victims to ascertain whether the protection from abuse order process was being abused with false claims of violence.

“It’s an urban legend,” she said of reports of abuse of the process.

The actual legislation will be printed. Haskell said there will be a public hearing in the next couple of weeks on the bill.

She said just because panel members voted to have the proposals from the working group considered, this session is not an indication of how they may vote when the committee considers the actual bill.

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