This commentary piece was originally published in The Daily Report on Oct. 6, 2015.
Guns are being left in the hands of abusers despite a federal law making it illegal in certain cases. In the past few months, at least four women have died, reportedly shot and killed with weapons that should have been removed from abusers under federal law.
Amanda Cloaninger-Colley was killed just hours after her estranged husband was ordered to turn in his firearms and stay away from her at a hearing in August; her friend was also killed. Police in Florida have charged Cloaninger-Colley’s husband with their deaths.
In July, authorities charged boxer Yathomas Riley with fatally shooting his wife in Leesburg, outside of Albany. Riley reportedly used a gun he held illegally, due to his arrest for family violence assault and battery the month before the killing. In the same month, 39-year-old Jamie Sandefur of Cairo was shot and killed by her husband, who had been arrested weeks before on domestic violence charges; he killed himself after killing his wife, authorities said.
A 1996 federal law makes it illegal for people convicted of domestic violence crimes and for those with a protective order entered against them to possess a firearm. The reasons for enacting this law, as Congress noted, were clear: “anyone who attempts or threatens violence against a loved one has demonstrated that he or she poses an unacceptable risk, and should be prohibited from possessing firearms.”
But nearly 20 years later, Georgia does not have a statewide procedure in place to enforce this law. While the law bans abusers from possessing firearms, many are still walking out of court with no clear order or follow-up from law enforcement officials. This can be deadly for domestic violence victims because the severity of the risk increases substantially when guns are involved, according to the Georgia Fatality Review. A domestic assault involving firearms is 12 times more likely to result in death than one without, a Johns Hopkins study says. And while domestic violence happens everywhere, rural women may be more at risk, given the scarcity of services outside metro Atlanta.
After a Family Violence Act protective order is entered, abusers are prohibited from possessing firearms. But the standard Family Violence Act protective order in Georgia does not specify how firearms are to be removed, and this hinders enforcement.
In some Georgia counties, judges are reluctant to order that the guns be removed by law enforcement. And even when the judge specifies in the order that the abuser is not to possess a firearm, enforcement—confiscating and storing weapons for the duration of the order—doesn’t always happen.
While some areas in Georgia have excellent policies on the removal of guns once the TPO is entered, as pointed out in the Georgia Fatality Review, some of Georgia’s law enforcement departments claim that they lack the space and capacity to seize and store weapons for the mandated period of time. With nowhere to store the firearms, police in many counties don’t confiscate weapons from the abuser or follow up to ensure weapons are removed.
It is unrealistic to believe that abusers will voluntarily relinquish their firearms to authorities without intervention. Often the point at which a protective order is filed against an abuser is the most dangerous time for the victim, when the abuser perceives a loss of power, subject to a legal restraint. To allow the possession of a firearm during this time exacerbates an existing threat to the victim’s well-being and can, as we have seen, have fatal results.
Judges, lawyers and law enforcement officials need to understand the life-saving potential and importance of enforcing this law consistently throughout our state. Convicted abusers and those who have been found to have committed acts of family violence have lost the right to bear arms by inflicting violence on another. Victims of domestic violence who are seeking safety by obtaining a protective order against their abusers should not have to continue to fear for their lives because the abusers have illegal firearms.
It’s our job in the legal profession to help protect people. In this case, that means enforcing the laws that already exist to protect domestic violence survivors, their children and their communities—before another tragedy strikes.