Protecting domestic violence survivors from gun violence

This morning, the Council took up their quarterly update to the city government budget. In the package of proposed changes was a gem of a proposal aimed squarely at giving more protection to domestic violence survivors.

Chris Anderson, Director of the Domestic Violence Unit in the City Attorney’s Office, presented the problem they are trying to address, and the budget proposal to tackle it. Anderson brought with him a pile of relevant statistics.

According to Anderson, between 2002 and 2012, 15,462 women were murdered by their intimate partners — twice the number of US soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined during that same period. 54% of those victims had a domestic violence protection order in place against they person who killed them. Firearms were the preferred weapon of choice, used more than all other methods combined in those cases.

In response to these harrowing statistics, the Washington State Legislature passed a law that requires all persons subject to a protection order to surrender their firearms or concealed pistol license “if clear, cogent, and convincing evidence shows use, display, or threat with firearm or other deadly weapon in a felony or ineligibility of respondent to possess a firearm,” or a court may opt to require it if there is a preponderance of evidence of the above. That’s fantastic, except that there is no provision, system or staffing for enforcement. In 2015, out of 2560 protection orders filed, only 8% of the gun owners complied with the requirement to surrender their firearms. Domestic violence offenders are the highest risk offenders to be in possession of firearms.

A year ago, a work group led by retired Judge Anne Levinson and including Anderson, SPD Sergeant Dorothy Kim, domestic violence advocates, and local volunteer attorneys began meeting to determine what the gaps and barriers are to enforcing the firearms surrender law. As Anderson noted this morning, this is an unusual legal process: whereas usually the legal system is reactive, this requires proactive effort to track down which of the people subject to a protection order are known to possess firearms. It’s an investigative process that involves checking gun purchase records, firearm permit records, and in some cases interviewing victims and family members.

On March 29 this year, the workgroup rolled out their plan. Once a week, King County Superior Court schedules a “firearms surrender review calendar” of hearings, where a judge decides whether to issue an order directing targets of a protection order to surrender their firearms. But the court does not pass that information on to SPD or the city attorney’s office, so the workgroup is present in court and collects the information on orders issued. They focused their initial effort on those people whose victim had identified that the defendant possessed firearms. Within 24 hours, they had seized firearms from two defendants, confirmed the surrender of two more guns and the concealed pistol license from a corrections officer (which opened up an investigation with the  Department of Corrections), and issued a search warrant and collected another seven firearms. In six days, they had recovered firearms in every single case and recovered a number of guns equivalent to 20% of the total collected in all of 2015.

Anderson, with the support of City Attorney Pete Holmes and Council members Burgess and Bagshaw, asked for $103,000 in the 2017 budget for two positions: an in-court coordinator and a prosecutor. The coordinator works with the courts to collect the information on the firearm surrender orders issued and pass it to SPD. The prosecutor drives enforcement in cooperation with SPD.

This may be the easiest $103,000 ever asked for. As Anderson pointed out, they don’t need to prove their system works: they have already done that. “We know we can be successful; we just need the boots on the ground.”

Today’s meeting was a first briefing on budget adjustments; this proposal and a long list of others will likely be voted out of committee on May 3, and get final approval by the full Council the following Monday.