In many Wisconsin counties, judges don't know if domestic abusers own firearms — even though a state law makes it illegal for them to do so. And if an abuser lies about owning guns or ignores a court order to turn them over, there is often no follow-up and no penalty.
That could soon change under a bipartisan bill that would set up a process for allowing courts to verify whether people subject to domestic violence and child abuse restraining orders surrender their weapons. The bill, which author Garey Bies (R-Sister Bay) began circulating for co-sponsors Monday, also has the support of the judiciary.
Bies expects the bill will get a speedy hearing and a vote in the state Assembly by the end of the year.
"When people are in a situation where they are supposed to turn their guns in, we will make sure it's done," said Bies, former chief deputy sheriff in Door County. "That way, if something arises, they won't have easy access to a weapon. They will have to work harder to find one, and maybe by then they will have calmed down a little bit. That's the goal: To take away the heat-of-passion type situations."
Under the bill:
· People who are served with temporary restraining orders must be notified that they cannot possess firearms and that they are required to surrender their guns.
· If a judge grants a permanent injunction, the perpetrator must fill out a questionnaire listing the make, model and serial number of any guns owned. The perpetrator would be required to testify to its accuracy under oath. Lying would constitute the crime of perjury.
· If the perpetrator does not attend the hearing at which a permanent injunction is granted, the victim must be allowed to notify the judge about any guns the abuser may have.
· If the guns have not been surrendered within 48 hours, the perpetrator must attend another hearing, scheduled within a week of the order becoming permanent. There, the abuser must prove the guns have been turned over to law enforcement or to a third party approved by the court. Failure to attend the hearing and failure to give up guns both would be considered contempt of court and result in arrest.
Teri Jendusa-Nicolai, a domestic violence victim-turned-advocate who was kidnapped, beaten and left for dead in a storage shed by her former husband in 2004, said she is glad victims as well as perpetrators will be able to inform the court about guns.
"You and I both know that criminals are not going to come forward and be honest. If criminals were honest there would be no criminals," she said.
She hopes the new law will discourage abusers from escalating their behavior by holding them accountable if they do lie. Jendusa-Nicolai obtained restraining orders against her ex-husband, David Larsen, before she was kidnapped.
A judged ordered him to turn over his weapons, but he did not, she said. She told police he kept two guns in a closet in his house, but officers were powerless to seize them, she said. During the kidnapping, he threatened her with one of the weapons, she said.
Larsen was later convicted of state and federal felonies and sentenced to life in prison.
"Anything that can allow these perpetrators to be held responsible or be penalized is a step in the right direction," Jendusa-Nicolai said. "The more they get away with, the more they're going to do. That's what happened in my case. If there's more accountability, that is going to lessen the amount of crimes."
A shooting at the Azana Salon & Spa in Brookfield in October has made reforming domestic violence laws a priority for state legislators in both chambers and both parties this session. But it likely would not have prevented Radcliffe Haughton from killing his estranged wife, Zina, and two of her co-workers at Azana and wounding four others before committing suicide.
That's because nothing in the bill makes it illegal to sell a gun to someone who is the subject of a restraining order.
When a Milwaukee County court commissioner granted a restraining order against Radcliffe Haughton three days before the shooting, he did not have any guns. But within 48 hours of leaving court, he purchased one from an online dealer, meeting the man in a McDonald's parking lot to pick up the weapon.
A similar bill was proposed several years ago, but judges were concerned that it would be unworkable because the court system already is overburdened, said Jeffrey Kremers, chief judge of the Milwaukee County Circuit Court. A four-county pilot program began in 2010 to study the issue before moving ahead.
At that time, 70% of Wisconsin counties did not automatically check if abusers turned in their guns.
Four counties initially received grants from the state's Office of Justice Assistance to implement the pilot program: Outagamie, Sauk, Waushara and Winnebago. Milwaukee County put a similar policy in place effective April 1.
Steven G. Brandl, as associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, evaluated the four-county pilot and found it to be effective.
There was very little cost involved in implementing the new procedures, and they did not significantly add to court overcrowding because most perpetrators handed over their guns without a second hearing, Brandl's report says.
"Victim advocates in each of the counties were also very supportive ... and, based on comments received from victims, thought that the new procedures made victims feel safer, gave them peace of mind, and enhanced their actual safety," the report says.
During the time period Brandl studied, from February 2011 through February 2012, courts in the four counties granted 212 domestic abuse and child abuse injunctions. The perpetrator owned a gun in 41 cases, according to either the perpetrator or the victim. Those guns were turned over in 33 cases.
After the chief judges read Brandl's report, they unanimously recommended that every county in the state adopt procedures for firearms surrender, Kremers said.
Because each county is different, court officials in each jurisdiction need to be able to come up with their own specific procedures, he said.
In Milwaukee County, the new policy for firearms surrender has added to the workload of clerks, judges, commissioners and other court staff, but implementation is going relatively smoothly, Kremers said.
"Do I think we're getting every single firearm out there or that a respondent might have access to?" Kremers asked. "I'm convinced that we're not. But we're doing the best we can within the rules of the law."
Police still need a warrant to search someone's house for a gun, Kremers said.
"The problem is a lot of times it comes down to petitioner saying there is a gun and there is no evidence of it," he said. "There's a hearing and he denies he has a gun and so now what? You can't go searching every house because somebody thinks there's a gun."
One possible fix to reduce the number of perpetrators who lie is used in Sauk County: When deputies there serve someone with a temporary restraining order, they immediately ask about guns and make a list. They do this before informing the person that a restraining order prohibits gun possession.
"This notification and inquiry by the sheriff's department may be done with such little warning that the respondent may not be prepared to be deceptive in their response," Brandl wrote.
Another possible flaw in the bill is that it would continue to offer perpetrators the choice of surrendering guns either to law enforcement or to a third party, such as a relative or friend.
"At the very least, it is probably fair to say that a respondent's access to his firearms is easier (less secure) if surrendered to a friend or relative than if the firearm is surrendered to a law enforcement agency," Brandl wrote.
Patti Seger, executive director of End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin, formerly the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence, called the bill "common-sense homicide prevention legislation."
"In many Wisconsin counties only minimal steps — if any — are taken to ensure violent abusers follow the law and turn over their guns," she said. "When domestic violence victims come forward, they show tremendous courage, and they deserve a system that takes their safety seriously."
Milwaukee Journal Sentinal