In South Carolina, state lawmaker and victim advocate Gilda Cobb-Hunter has found it easier to get court-ordered protections for family pets than to take guns away from domestic abusers.
For more than a decade, her state has maintained one of the worst domestic violence records in the country. Just last month, the state was ranked as the deadliest in the U.S. for women killed by men, largely in murders that involved guns. The report, by the Violence Policy Center, comes in the wake of a domestic violence reform law passed by the state’s General Assembly this summer. Ushered in by intense public pressure, the new law beefs up criminal penalties and ensures graduated gun bans for people convicted domestic abusers.
While it was largely seen as a step forward in domestic violence cases, the law stops short of forcing those charged with domestic violence to surrender their guns.
It’s a critical detail that could mean the difference between life and death for abuse victims, according to victim advocates like Cobb-Hunter. For years she has tried to find new ways to expand protections for abuse victims. Last year she was able to get protections for pets, which are often left vulnerable to attacks by abusers seeking to manipulate victims. Her attempt to remove from the picture the weapons most often used to kill abuse victims, however, met fierce opposition.
In a state with about one concealed carry permit for every 19 citizens, the debate over Second Amendment gun rights for offenders quickly overshadows the fact that South Carolina women are being killed with guns at more than twice the national average.
South Carolina’s grim domestic track record has been a reflection of “unworkable, complex laws,” state House Speaker Jay Lucas said in a statement after the reform bill passed. The law strengthens conviction penalties by establishing degrees of injury and aggravating circumstances. Domestic violence education will now be included in middle-school health classes, and judges may proceed with cases without the victim present.
The law also tackles firearms: Abusers who are convicted of lesser degrees of domestic violence are now barred from having a gun for three years. Those with a first-degree domestic violence conviction would not be allowed to possess a gun for 10 years. Convictions for domestic violence of a high and aggravated nature now come with a lifetime gun ban.
State Attorney General Alan Wilson called the reform “a giant first step” but acknowledged it was “not perfect and is not the last measure of domestic violence reform needed.”
Missing from the law, critics say, is a court-imposed surrender mechanism for documenting and enforcing compliance regarding gun possession.
The vast majority — 94 percent — of female murder victims are killed by someone they knew and with a handgun, according to the Violence Policy Center report.
For the past two years, Cobb-Hunter has proposed legislation that would require those charged with or convicted of domestic violence to surrender their weapons. It also would give the courts the ability to take guns when issuing restraining orders and require those charged with violent offenses hand over their guns as a condition of bond. Anyone who helped put a gun back into the hands of those convicted for domestic violence would face a felony.
Having been in the state legislature 24 years, Cobb-Hunter, who also runs a family violence and rape crisis center, has realized that changing attitudes toward domestic violence is “an uphill battle,” and she has been able to get initiatives passed only here and there.
Every year, she proposes bills aimed at strengthening laws for victims, such as her effort last year to extend orders for protection in domestic abuse cases to family pets, which are at risk of harm by batterers. “Having done this work, what I know is that a batterer will use anything,” she said. While not everyone in the General Assembly voted to protect pets, she was able to get that measure passed last year.
Her bill aimed at curbing domestic homicides, however, was a different story.
The reaction from her fellow lawmakers was immediate and visceral, she said. “What I ran into was the NRA on steroids, because you’re talking South Carolina, a culture that has guns as second nature,” said Cobb-Hunter, who represents Orangeburg.
“There is a tendency to care more about dealing with the issue of animals than there is dealing with battered women and children,” she said, comparing the reception of her recent bills. “In a lot of communities, in a lot of counties in this state, you will find that the government will fund animal shelters at a higher rate than they do battered women’s shelters,” she said.
In South Carolina the opposition to limiting firearms ownership on any level is considerable, said Sara Barber, the executive director for South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.
“I heard one legislator say in a committee meeting that he could not support anything where a man who pushed his wife in front of his children and was convicted of that would lose his right to own a firearm,” she said. “But when we talk about pets, people can connect to their pet, and they can see the potential importance of that. They don’t want to connect to the fact that somebody they might know, like their friend, would lose their firearms,” she said.
Even with documented reports of abuse, restraining orders aren’t always a given in the state courts, according to Pamela Prince, a victims’ advocate with the Pee Dee Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Assault, citing a recent denial of a request for a protection order made by a client who was abused while pregnant.
Any effort to get guns out of domestic problems helps, she said.
“If that perpetrator does not have access to that weapon, there’s a good chance she’s not going to get killed by that weapon,” Prince said. “I’m not saying he might not find something else, [but] if that gun is not in that home, if it’s not in his immediate possession, that’s a good thing for that victim.”
“To me, when we talk about worrying about the Second Amendment rights of convicted violent offenders, we have a serious problem,” Barber said. “And if we’re not willing to have that hard conversation, I don’t know how we’re expected to make much of a difference,” she said.