June 16, 2015

In R.I. domestic-violence cases, suspects often keep guns

A review of all domestic violence restraining orders issued in Rhode Island for the past two years found that judges rarely require suspects to turn in their firearms, even when the alleged victims say there are firearms present or that they've been threatened with a gun.

By Amanda Milkovits

Providence Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE, R.I.  — A review of all domestic violence restraining orders issued in Rhode Island for the past two years found that judges rarely require suspects to turn in their firearms, even when the alleged victims say there are firearms present or that they've been threatened with a gun.
Of the 1,609 protective orders granted from 2012 to 2014, Rhode Island judges ordered the suspects to surrender firearms in just 5 percent of the cases. The results varied from court to court, with Kent County District Court and Washington County District Court judges ordering guns surrendered at far higher rates than judges in the remaining six district and family courts.
The research comes from Everytown for Gun Safety, a group that has lobbied for gun-control bills now languishing at the General Assembly, including legislation that would require people convicted of domestic violence crimes and subject to restraining orders to surrender their firearms. Everytown released the research and its data to The Journal first.
While federal law prohibits people under domestic violence protective orders from buying or possessing guns, there's no provision for how the guns are surrendered, and in Rhode Island, the matter is left to a judge's discretion. Everytown wanted to see how that discretion is applied, said its research director, Ted Alcorn.
What they found, Alcorn said, was a "wake-up call." 
Visiting each courthouse, the researchers collected the 1,609 final protective orders, totaling more than 22,000 pages. They reviewed all of the handwritten complaints and the judges' final orders, looking for key points, Alcorn said. Did the person seeking the order mention the presence of guns, threats against themselves or their children, or ask the court to remove the guns? When the judge granted the restraining order, was the suspect also told to surrender any firearms?
"When you see the narratives, they tell a powerful story," Alcorn said. 
One was a Providence woman with young children, who wrote that her estranged husband broke into her home and said he was going back to his truck to get his guns. In another, a woman said the man threatened to "blow my head off" and made her lay on the floor of his apartment with a gun to her head and "said he could put a bullet in my head and leave me there." In both cases, the judges granted restraining orders but didn't require the men to surrender their firearms.
The findings
Firearms were mentioned in 23 percent of all cases, Alcorn said. Judges ordered guns surrendered in 13 percent of cases when told the suspect had access to a gun or threatened to get a gun to hurt the complainant. Overall, judges ordered firearms removed in 5 percent of cases, according to the research.
Everytown lawyer Luke Entelis said the findings were striking. "These people are prohibited by federal law from possessing firearms, and Rhode Island courts are allowed to order them to turn in their guns," Luke said.
But they don't. "It just doesn't make sense why the decision would be left in the hands of the court," Luke Entelis said.
The Journal shared Everytown's initial report with Craig Berke, spokesman for the Rhode Island Judiciary, who cautioned that the numbers don't reveal all. While Everytown collected the documents, the group didn't listen to the recordings of the hearings, when Berke said evidence would have been presented. A "mention" or "indication" of firearms in the narrative of a complaint isn't evidence, he said, it's just an allegation.  
Every case is different and has its own unique set of facts," Berke said. "Our judges have to weigh evidence and apply the law, and apply it evenly on both sides. These numbers get your attention, but they don't tell the whole story."
As for why different courts show different results, Berke said, "not only is every single case different, every judge is different."
The legislation
The Rhode Island Judiciary is not taking a position on the bills sponsored by South Kingstown Rep. Teresa Tanzi and Barrington Sen. Cynthia Coyne that would prohibit gun possession by people convicted of domestic violence and those subject to protective orders, during the length of the order. The legislation requires the state courts to order the surrender of firearms in those cases.  The legislative session is waning, and the two bills — House Bill 5655 and Senate Bill 503 — haven't advanced since they were heard in April. There's little indication that the legislation will move forward.
Gun rights advocates came out by the dozens to oppose these bills and other legislation that targeted firearms, calling them "overly broad." For Tanzi, the Everytown report helped build a strong case for the bills. "It was a relief to finally have quality information, because people on both sides of the issue are very passionate, so it gives me more confidence to move forward based on facts," Tanzi said. 
Tanzi said she understands the data doesn't show the complexity of the cases. However, 15 other states, including Massachusetts and Connecticut, have closed the loophole left by federal law. Why not Rhode Island?  
"People tend to view this as a gun bill. To me, it's a domestic violence bill," Tanzi said. "When we get people to see this isn't a Second Amendment right, this is about a right for families to feel safe, then I think we do have a strong chance. Letting convicted abusers stay armed doesn't make sense."
The Journal shared the study with Deborah DeBare, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence, who said she was "astounded" by the findings. "I feel that it's the legal system's responsibility to provide blanket protection to make sure firearms are removed," she said Monday.
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On Twitter: @AmandaMilkovits