A country-wide debate about guns may have erupted after the Newtown, Conn., shootings on Dec. 14, but it’s important to remember that Maine has been examining for years the role firearms play in domestic violence cases. So Gov. Paul LePage’s welcome announcement during his State of the State address on Tuesday that a task force will address how best to get guns away from abusers was a long time coming.
The problem is an old one, as firearms continue to be the most commonly used weapons by people who commit domestic violence homicide, and they are often used to intimidate or threaten intimate partners. Last April, the Maine Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel came away with some key recommendations, one of which was for criminal justice stakeholders to examine the current procedures for firearms relinquishment.
LePage gave the issue prominence when he spoke about it during his address.
“Unfortunately, the enforcement is very deficient because all law enforcement has at their disposal is asking whether you gave your guns up,” he said.
That’s the crux of the issue: What can Maine do to compel people who have been served with a protection from abuse order, and who are prohibited from possessing firearms, to actually turn over those guns to law enforcement or a third party, without infringing on their constitutional rights?
It’s a complicated matter that will benefit from examination by a task force composed of sheriffs, chiefs of police, prosecutors, family law attorneys, domestic violence prevention nonprofits, firearms owners, sportsmen and defense attorneys. Too often, perpetrators tell law enforcement they don’t have any guns, or they turn over some guns but not all. Police officers can obtain a warrant to search a home if they believe they didn’t relinquish all guns — but only if there is probable cause.
The task force will do well to examine practices in other states to see if there are lessons Maine can learn. It addition, members might want to look into the varying capacity of police departments to store relinquished firearms and address any liability concerns. Are some departments restricted by their available storage space? If so, are they more likely to have guns stored with a perpetrator’s family? Are abusers likely to have access to the guns if they are stored with family?
One of the most dangerous times for survivors of domestic violence is when they leave an abusive partner — because the partner loses control. Women who are separated from their husbands are more likely to be victimized by spouses than are those who still live with them, and a majority of domestic violence homicide victims separate from their abusers prior to their deaths, according to the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.
The goal of civil protection orders is to help keep survivors safe. They can restrain abusers’ behavior by prohibiting them from contacting their victims and possessing firearms. But too often, as Maine has seen time after time, protection orders do not guarantee safety.
“We the men in this room need to stand up and shout loud and clear that we are going to protect our women and children,” LePage said in his State of the State. He’s right. The task force championed by LePage is an important step toward figuring out how to better protect survivors who face the threat of an abuser with a gun. There is a lot of work to do.