Dallas County judges, lawmakers, others meet on how to keep guns from domestic abusers

by Emily Roberts | Jun 26, 2014

Dallas County judges, lawmakers, others meet on how to keep guns from domestic abusers

June 20, 2014
by Jennifer Emily and Sarah Mervosh
The Dallas Morning News

State and county officials are trying to make good on their promise to help keep guns away from domestic abusers.

Many officials with the power to keep guns out of batterers’ hands met for the first time Friday for a brainstorming session on just how to do that. The meeting included seven judges, three prosecutors, local and federal authorities and a showing from three state representatives as well as Dallas City Hall.

Dallas Rep. Rafael Anchia called the meeting after The Dallas Morning News reported this month that Dallas County regularly fails to enforce laws that forbid convicted abusers and subjects of protective orders from possessing guns, even as other Texas counties have found ways to impose the law.

“I have never been in a room with all of the players ... talking about an issue that is so important in the life of a victim of domestic violence,” said Paige Flink, who is executive director of The Family Place shelter and has long advocated for better gun-ban enforcement. “There’s not anyone that didn’t come.”

Core concerns

Friday’s biggest question was where would Dallas County store the 600 to 700 guns that officials expect to confiscate annually if they begin enforcing the law?

With police and sheriff evidence rooms already taxed for space, criminal court judge Roberto Cañas suggested using a private facility that has already agreed to store the guns if the county buys a safe.

Because of the questions about storage, judges say they’re hesitant to ask offenders whether they have guns.

“We’re stuck with, what do we do if they say yes?” said Judge Os Chrisman, who is retired and sits part time on the protective order court bench.

Once that question is answered, officials will need to decide how to confiscate the guns.

Cañas said programs elsewhere tend to rely on the “honor system,” the honesty of the abuser or the victim about gun possession. He said Dallas County should strive for something more reliable to determine whether an abuser owns a gun, but it’s unclear how much more the law allows.

Officials also will have to decide what they would do if an abuser refuses to surrender a gun voluntarily.

While Friday’s meeting focused more on questions than answers, Cañas said that was a necessary step.

“People will realize their problems are solvable,” said Cañas, who mainly handles family violence misdemeanors and stepped up to lead the gun confiscation effort after The News’ story. “The hurdles … we can jump over them or go around them.”

Legislative options

Anchia said he is ready to pursue legislative changes that could help put judges and police at ease about whether they have the authority to take guns away from abusers — but only if that’s needed.

He said he will first examine whether a gun confiscation program could work by overhauling efforts locally.

Aaron Setliff, policy director for the Texas Council on Family Violence, cautioned that an attempt to change the law comes with the risk of opposition that could ultimately “dial back” the existing firearms restrictions.

What’s next

Cañas will work to get federal grant money, funneled through the governor’s office, to help fund storage space. Dallas County has the first crack at about $36,000 but needs to respond to the governor’s office in the next few weeks, Cañas said.

Friday’s group hopes to use the grant for a pilot program to confiscate guns in certain courts, such as the protective order and misdemeanor courts. Abusers could then turn their guns into the private storage facility, possibly in the presence of a police officer.

And they plan to meet again in September.

Read more at Dallasnews.com.