Of Missouri’s 56 murders and murder-suicides related to domestic abuse in 2003, roughly half were committed with guns.
In at least 10 percent of the cases, a restraining order was in effect.
A restraining order is just a piece of paper, sheriff’s Detective Rene Atkins says. “It’s not bulletproof.”
Keeping guns out of the hands of abusers might seem an obvious goal, but it is not easy.
“My attitude is that people who are drunk and threaten their domestic partners are bad candidates to possess guns,” says Judge Christopher Kelly of the 13th Circuit Court, which covers Boone and Callaway counties.
The 1994 Brady Bill and the 1996 Lautenberg Amendment prohibit possession of firearms by those convicted of misdemeanor domestic abuse and those under restraining orders. But those laws are rarely enforced, and violations are almost never prosecuted.
“I have almost unlimited contempt for the Justice Department,” Kelly says. “They don’t have any interest in protecting people. They use these laws to intimidate people who they are interested in for other matters.”
For example, federal agents might arrest someone under the federal firearm prohibition if they have insufficient evidence to prosecute the person for something they see as more serious, such as trafficking in humans.
Atkins says it’s hard to get agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to act on domestic abuse cases, although she recently got them to act on one case.
“I called them every day, and finally they acted on it. I was a squeaky wheel,” Atkins says. She says she thought the case was important because she knew the man, a competition shooter, had a gun.
Boone County Assistant Prosecutor Merilee Crockett says those cases must be prosecuted in federal court because possession-of-firearms restrictions are federal law.
“There’s no state law that I can charge someone with for it,” Crockett says. “I’ve had several cases where it would be a federal felony possession of a firearm, and I recently did call the U.S. attorney’s office on one of them, and they told me, ‘Well, if your case doesn’t work out, give us a call.’”
Neither the regional U.S. attorney’s office in Kansas City nor the local office in Jefferson City could cite a single case they had prosecuted under this provision of the federal gun-control law, despite assurances that they take it seriously.
Kelly invokes a firearm prohibition for those under orders of protection, not because of federal law but because of provisions in Missouri’s conceal-and-carry law. The law requires it, he says.
Even when someone is prohibited from having guns, there is no mechanism for taking them away.
“They’re not specifically ordered at any time to turn the guns over to the police department or the sheriff’s department or whoever,” says attorney Lisa May of MU’s Family Violence Clinic. May and her colleagues at the legal clinic represent victims of abuse when they petition for restraining orders.
“He can turn them in or give them to a friend. He can do whatever he wants to get rid of them,” Kelly says.
Even in cases where firearms are specifically prohibited by the court, Missouri judges sometimes bypass the provisions of the law and allow people to keep their guns.
In a 2002 case in Howard County, a docket entry reads, “Defendant files Request to have firearm to hunt game to feed his family.” The judge granted the request.
Alex Formuzis, a spokesman for Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who sponsored the 1996 amendment to the Brady Bill that prohibited firearm possession by known abusers, confirmed that the law’s intent was to keep abusers from purchasing firearms rather than provide a mechanism for confiscating guns.
“It’s up to the states, and it’s up to the judge and local law enforcement to deal with retrieval of weapons already in possession of the abuser,” Formuzis says. He adds that Lautenberg is drafting legislation that will address the issue of retrieval at the federal level.
Nationwide, guns are the weapon of choice for domestic homicides, according to Department of Justice statistics. “Over two-thirds of the spouse and ex-spouse victims were killed by guns,” according to a report by the Federal Bureau of Justice. State Rep. Sherman Parker, a Republican from St. Charles County, became interested in the issue when one of his constituents was threatened by her husband while she had a restraining order against him.
“This guy is walking around in the front yard of her home with two guns in his hands, and the police didn’t take the guns out of the household or anywhere,” Parker says. “The police come on the scene on a drug bust or something like that, the first thing they do is take the guns out of the household. And in this case they didn’t.”
Parker introduced legislation last year that would bring such cases within the jurisdiction of county prosecutors. The bill did not pass. Parker says some of his Republican colleagues expressed concern about infringing on citizens’ Second Amendment rights. But Parker says he ran the proposed legislation by National Rifle Association lawyers.
“They didn’t have a problem with it,” Parker says.
“We’re just taking away guns from people who don’t deserve to have them. Just because it’s in the Constitution that we have the right to bear arms doesn’t mean that a guy that’s beating the crap out of his wife should be carrying a gun.”