Dallas County steps up to keep guns from domestic abusers

by Emily Roberts | Jun 06, 2014

Dallas County steps up to keep guns from domestic abusers

June 5, 2013
by Jennifer Emily and Sarah Mervosh
The Dallas Morning News

Alarmed that Dallas County fails to enforce laws that forbid certain domestic abusers to have guns, state and county officials vowed Thursday to take stronger steps to keep guns away from batterers.

The commitments come after The Dallas Morning News reported Sunday that county officials weren’t enforcing state and federal laws that prohibit convicted domestic abusers and subjects of protective orders from having guns.

Criminal court judge Roberto Cañas said Thursday that he would oversee Dallas County’s efforts to impose the law, filling a vacant leadership role that experts say was holding the county back from creating an enforcement plan.

Also, Dallas Rep. Rafael Anchia is considering whether the law needs changing to help officials confiscate firearms, and plans to address the issue in the Legislature next year, his chief of staff said.

“This is something we think everyone should get behind regardless of party or political viewpoints,” Liz Zornes said. “No one is in favor of domestic violence.”

Because Dallas County officials didn’t follow the law, guns stayed in the hands of abusers like the man who police say killed his pregnant girlfriend and shot a police officer last year while he had a protective order against him.

Officials blamed their inaction on the law, which doesn’t clearly indicate who is authorized to confiscate weapons. But The News found that other Texas counties had discovered ways to impose the gun ban anyway.

Cañas, who mainly handles family violence misdemeanors, said he was inspired to take action because of the story and will take the lead on making sure Dallas follows suit. “I’m going to be that person,” he said as he spent part of Thursday looking over plans for how other communities remove guns. “I’m putting it on myself to be that.”

Officials said the newspaper’s story spurred conversations and meetings this week — from the courthouse to Dallas City Hall to Anchia’s office — about what could be done to make sure guns stay out of the hands of abusers.

It is the first time since preventing domestic homicides became a countywide priority last year that enforcing the gun ban has moved to the forefront of discussions.

Most women killed by intimate partners in Texas are shot, and research shows that access to a gun increases a woman’s chance of being killed by her partner by five times.

Judges involved

On Monday, Dallas County protective order court judges met to discuss whether they could help impose the law, said Judge Linda Thomas, one of four senior judges who rotate on the bench.

“This week is the first time that I sat down with the other judges and actually talked about the weapon issue,” Thomas said.

They also discussed enforcing the firearm ban Tuesday during a roundtable discussion about protective order court.

She said the judges are now looking at how other counties effectively enforce the law. Travis and Bexar counties, for example, have programs that require abusers to hand over their guns in exchange for a receipt.

Thomas said the judges are also ironing out differences about whether the law gives them authority to confiscate weapons. Police, too, have expressed reservations that the law doesn’t say who can take guns.

Anchia’s chief of staff said his office hopes to tackle those concerns.

“We would like to do legislation that would put some teeth into the law,” Zornes said Thursday. “We need some sort of enforcement mechanism that is statewide so people aren’t being told to turn in their guns and then that’s the last anybody hears about it.”

Anchia, a Democrat, was out of the country on a business trip Thursday, but Zornes said the office contacted The Family Place shelter and the Dallas County district attorney’s office this week. She said they also plan to host a meeting with judges and advocates later this month.

“We just want to sit down and pick everyone’s brain — all these folks who see this stuff every day — and ask them what can we do to make the law better and make it more enforceable,” she said. “Because right now, it clearly isn’t.”

As the new point person, Cañas said he plans to look at how other communities answered critical questions, such as where to store confiscated weapons and how to pay for it. But he said some changes could be made quickly.

“There are things that are in our power now. We need to get the things that we as judges control to start working,” he said. “Like asking the offender, ‘do you have guns?’”

The News reported that a Florida county asks abusers to sign an affidavit about whether they have guns. Cañas said that could be easily implemented here, and state District Judge Rick Magnis, who runs a program for domestic violence offenders on probation, said he has already written a draft of an affidavit to use in his court.

Magnis also said he considering having abusers testify whether they have weapons. Both methods would be considered sworn testimony and lying could mean adding criminal charges or revoking probation.

Cañas had previously tried but failed to to confiscate guns in his court. He said now there is more community support.

“He can count on me as his right hand,” Magnis said. “I will do anything I can to assist.”

City Hall discussion

At Dallas City Hall this week, representatives from the city, police, shelters and the district attorney’s office sat around a large table for a regular meeting of the domestic violence task force.

City Council member Jennifer Staubach Gates, the panel’s chair, brought up this week’s movement to better enforce the ban. “We are looking at how we can possibly deal with it,” she said.

The task force is also set to begin tracking certain measures that would give a data-driven glimpse into how Dallas County could better handle domestic violence. The group is focused on preventing domestic homicides, particularly by shortening the time between when an incident occurs and when the case is resolved in the courts system.

Dallas police will soon report to the task force a tally of domestic violence fatalities and the number of protective order violations, for example. Shelters will count how many people they turn away because their beds are full. And the district attorney’s office will report how many cases it rejects or no-bills and how many repeat offenders they prosecute, among other metrics.

Paige Flink, executive director of The Family Place shelter, was encouraged by the discussions this week. She said she hopes Dallas County can create a system that will withstand changes in leadership and protect victims for years to come.

“Our community is committed to reaching a solution that will work,” she said. “I’m not going to stop fighting until we figure out a way to follow these laws that were set up to protect victims of domestic violence.”

But judges cautioned that large-scale change will take time. There are 17 felony courts and 13 misdemeanor courts that operate independently. Prosecutors, advocates and the county’s police departments will also have to work together.

Mary Murphy, administrative judge over judges in 34 counties, including Dallas, said she wants to be a resource.

“We’re on it,” she said. “I’m trying to get everyone talking.”

Read the full article at Dallasnews.com.