The failure to enforce weapons-surrender orders is playing Russian roulette with the lives of domestic-violence survivors who, although they have obtained a protection order, are still at risk of lethal harm.
THE risk that an intimate partner will be killed increases fivefold when a domestic abuser has a gun. From 1997 to 2014, firearms were used in 369 domestic violence homicides in Washington state.
So two years ago, Washington passed a law to get guns out of the hands of domestic abusers. But despite this law intended to protect victims of domestic violence, the lack of resources to enforce it means many abusers never give up their firearms.
When a court finds a person has committed domestic violence and issues a protection order meeting defined criteria, it now must order the abuser to surrender any firearms, other dangerous weapons and a concealed pistol license. It is a criminal offense if the abuser does not surrender his or her firearms.
The abuser is required to file paperwork with the court either declaring the items have been surrendered or declaring he or she does not have any of these items. In King County, the Superior Court now schedules “review hearings” to monitor whether the required paperwork has been submitted to the court.
Enforcement of weapons-surrender orders is a statewide problem. In King County, the most recent statistics show that the court issued 377 orders to surrender weapons in the first six months of 2016. Of these 377 orders, 33 respondents surrendered one or more weapons, 135 respondents filed declarations saying they did not have any weapons and 209 respondents did not file any of the required paperwork with the court.
An abuser can circumvent a surrender order by not filing anything, falsely claiming not to have any weapons or falsely claiming to have turned in all of his or her weapons. At present, there are no procedures in place in King County to pursue those who do not file any paperwork or to verify abusers’ claims that they have no weapons or that they have turned them all in.
Information, however, exists in Washington to determine if an abuser has a pistol. If an abuser has purchased a pistol from a licensed firearms dealer in Washington or from a private party through a licensed dealer in Washington since 2015 or has obtained a concealed pistol license (CPL) in Washington, by law there is supposed to be a record of it at the state Department of Licensing. Unfortunately, this information is limited to pistols and CPLs and does not include all firearms in Washington and is reportedly out of date. Nonetheless, if properly maintained by the DOL, it is a valuable database to help enforce weapons-surrender orders.
Law enforcement needs to take a more active role in enforcing weapons-surrender orders. It needs to access what DOL information exists, provide it to the court and review the evidence in protection-order cases. If probable cause exists the abuser has a gun, law enforcement needs to ask the court to issue a search warrant to seize the gun before the abuser has an opportunity to use it against the victim or conceal it.
The courts need to do more to ensure compliance with their surrender orders. If a court order is ignored, by law a court can initiate a remedial contempt proceeding on its own or ask the prosecuting attorney to initiate a punitive contempt proceeding. The courts need to evaluate the available evidence of weapons possession by the abuser and take decisive action when warranted to ensure compliance with weapons-surrender orders.
Since only 9 percent of victims of domestic violence have a lawyer in court, and victims representing themselves are not aware of the importance of weapons evidence, judicial officers presiding at protection-order hearings need to ask the parties about the presence and location of any weapons. Unfortunately, despite the importance of this information, this is not being done.
It is unrealistic to expect victims of domestic violence to attempt to enforce weapons-surrender orders.”
It is unrealistic to expect victims of domestic violence to attempt to enforce weapons-surrender orders. Having obtained a protection order, victims are understandably reluctant to risk the ire of their abusers by returning to court to enforce surrender orders.
A new law is being proposed in Initiative 1491 that would create an “extreme risk” protection order authorizing courts to order people found to be a “significant danger of causing personal injury to self or others” by having a firearm to surrender their guns. But if King County and the other counties in our state are unable to enforce court orders to surrender firearms in domestic-violence cases, how would they enforce the same requirement if Initiative 1491 passes?
Not all abusers are eager to relinquish their guns. Enforcing firearm surrenders means checking that every abuser who has been ordered to surrender his or her firearms either doesn’t have any firearms or has turned them all in and taking action when it appears surrender has not occurred. It is a labor-intensive undertaking.
Prosecutors, judges, victim advocates, and court and law-enforcement personnel in King County are trying to enforce this surrender requirement but are severely hampered by a lack of resources and outdated or fragmented information systems.
This year, the King County Board of Health adopted a resolution calling on Public Health — Seattle & King County to seek appropriate funding to improve compliance with the firearm surrender requirement.
Yet despite the recognized need to fund enforcement of firearm-surrender orders, not one dollar has been allocated for enforcing firearms surrender. Firearm-surrender enforcement was unfunded when it passed the Legislature two years ago, and it remains unfunded today by the state, the city of Seattle and King County.
Until our elected leaders provide enough resources to enforce firearm-surrender orders, victims of domestic violence will not receive the protection promised them with the passage of the weapons-surrender requirement two years ago.
The present failure to enforce weapons-surrender orders is playing Russian roulette with the lives of domestic-violence survivors who, although they have obtained a protection order, are still at risk of lethal harm because not nearly enough has been done to ensure their abusers don’t have firearms.