Julie Dermansky / Corbis

New form of restraining order aims to take guns from dangerous people

Study comes as NRA in Louisiana takes punch out of bill meant to take guns from domestic abusers

Gun rights lobbyists in Louisiana have helped soften a state bill meant to keep firearms out of the hands of people who commit domestic abuse, even as new research published this week recommends taking weapons away from potentially volatile people before they commit acts of violence.

Federal law already bans gun ownership for people convicted of abusing domestic partners, and the Louisiana bill would have extended the scope of that law to include “dating partners." But the National Rifle Association (NRA) has argued successfully to Louisiana lawmakers that the new rule would throw too broad a net, depriving some people of rights when they have done nothing wrong.

"The NRA agrees that more can be done to protect victims of domestic abuse from their violent abusers, but HB 488 is so overly broad that it could make a felon out of a girlfriend who pulls a cell phone from her boyfriend's hand against his will,” Jennifer Baker, an NRA spokeswoman, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune, arguing that penalties for violating restraining orders should become harsher instead.

Louisiana has a gun murder rate that is more than twice the national average, according to the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning public policy think tank. 

The de-fanged version of the bill was finalized last week by the legislature’s Administration of Criminal Justice committee. The original, tougher version had been introduced by the committee's vice chair Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans. Neither Moreno nor committee chair Rep. Joe Lopinto, R-Metairie, had responded to requests for comment at the time of publication. 

One of the key differences in Moreno's version of the bill was that it would have let law enforcement officers take firearms from people who have been convicted of stalking. Under NRA pressure, legislators managed to remove that provision. 

One of the major elements of the original bill would have expanded the scope of what kind of couples are eligible for a Domestic Violence Restraining Order (DVRO), which is issued by a judge and allows authorities to take away the guns of a threatening partner.

The original text includes “dating partner,” while the revised version doesn't — but it does extend protections to “family members” instead, the paper reported. 

It also would have prevented abusers from buying more weapons. These measures would only have been possible, however, after some violence has occurred. 

The lobbyists’ victory over the tougher bill came just days before the publication of a new study by Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, published Wednesday in the journal Behavioral Sciences and the Law, urging a more proactive approach to preventing gun violence. It recommends what it calls a Gun Violence Restraining Order (GVRO), modeled on the Domestic Violence Restraining Orders — something judges around much of the U.S. issue every day. About half of U.S. states have DVRO statutes that prohibit offenders from possessing firearms.

“The GVRO allows family members and intimate partners who observe a relative’s dangerous behavior and believe it may be a precursor to violence to request a GVRO through the civil justice system,” the study reads. “Once issued by the court, a GVRO authorizes law enforcement to remove any guns in the respondent’s possession and prohibits the respondent from purchasing new guns.”

California is the only state with a GVRO law, but it won’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2016, after state lawmakers passed it last year. Currently there are three states — Connecticut, Indiana and Texas — where authorities can take guns away on the basis of dangerous behavior. But the police still need to request permission from a judge to take the guns. 

A GVRO system would let immediate family members or intimate partners request the removal themselves. States would ultimately decide what types of relatives would have the power to request a GVRO. 

“We live in a country where many people have access to guns and guns are easy to get. The GVRO is a concrete tool that allows people to get help for their relatives," said Shannon Frattaroli, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins who served as lead author for the study.

Frattaroli said that a GVRO would complement a federal law that prohibits people who are under restraining orders for domestic violence from owning guns. He added that it would also fill in the gaps in places where there is no parallel state law preventing people under a DVRO from possessing weapons.

GVROs need to happen at a state level in order for the court system to be able to properly enforce the orders, Frattaroli said. She said she is optimistic that states, no matter their political leanings, will see the benefits of the policy if it works in California.

Although existing statutes allowing police to remove guns provide an example of how the process could work, there is no GVRO in place anywhere yet — so the researchers in the Johns Hopkins study looked at several scenarios in which they believe a GVRO could prevent violence before it starts.  

In one hypothetical scenario in the study, police are unable to step in under current law when a fictional firearms collector named “Rex” starts to suffer from violent hallucinations as a side effect of Parkinson’s medication. His family believes his behavior poses a threat to him and those around him. Under a GVRO, Rex’s family has the “ability to continue to care for him at home without the fear that his guns will be used against a family member or visitor during one of Rex’s hallucinations.”

Frattaroli stressed, however, that assistance from a GVRO isn’t directed solely at the mentally ill and their loved ones, but rather at anyone expressing “dangerous or threatening behavior.”

In Louisiana, Rep. Moreno told the Times-Picayune she laments the loss of some of the strongest provisions in her domestic violence bill.

"At the same time, we're still making steps forward,” she said. “It's only by moving forward that we can continue to ... prevent domestic violence across the state."

The new bill, HB 842, still needs to go to a vote in the state’s House and Senate chambers.

Rep. Lopinto, the chairman of the committee that removed the stricter provisions, told the Times-Picayune he stood behind the new version, which he said the NRA helped persuade him to change. 

"I don't think it was gutted down to nothing," he said.

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