INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Domestic violence victims are trying to take action to protect themselves from abuse, but finding little relief from our justice system.
One in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have been victims of physical violence at the hands of their partner, says the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Those victims are five times more likely to die if their abuser has a firearm, according to the Domestic Violence Network.
I-Team 8 discovered a huge gap in the law meant to protect these victims. Even though police and judges are aware of these dangerous abusers, they do little to make sure guns are kept out of their hands.
There are federal and state laws meant to protect victims from gun violence. Those laws allow the courts to order people convicted of domestic violence or people with a protective order against them to surrender their firearms and be prevented from buying more.
Our investigation revealed that despite the existence of these gun laws, little is being done to make sure they’re enforced and keep victims and anyone who comes into contact with these abusers safe.
“He had another whole side I did not know about”
There were at least eight domestic violence homicides in fiscal year 2017, and at least 11 in fiscal year 2018. Despite her fear, Brittany Thomas was determined to keep herself and her son from being part of that statistic.
“I didn’t want to do it because he’s kind of crazy, so I didn’t know if he would try to retaliate,” Thomas said of her ex-boyfriend, who is also the father of her child. “But at the same time, I wanted to protect my baby.”
Her relationship with her ex sounds like so many others involving domestic violence.
“It was fun, he was nice…he was a great person,” she said. “But he had another whole side I did not know about.”
Thomas begun to see her partner’s other side in August 2017, when she says he bit her arm, sent her photos of a gun and talked about killing his children. She turned to the Center for Victim and Human Rights to get a protective order, a firearms prohibition and a firearms surrender order.
“The threats he made, talking about doing a mass shooting, he talked about ISIS, talked about shooting his son in the head, and then he told me that he can shoot up to 500 yards,” said Thomas.
In order to make sure her ex surrendered his weapons, Thomas’ lawyer asked for another hearing where her ex would have to prove he gave up his guns.
Raio Krishnayya and his team at the Center for Victim and Human Rights help about 300 people like Thomas get protective orders every year. There were 12,887 active No Contact Orders in 2018.
Who makes sure firearms are surrendered?
When protective orders include a firearms surrender, who is responsible for making sure that happens? I-Team 8 found there is no standard answer, leaving empty the mechanism to protect victims.
The only people regularly making sure it happens seem to be the attorneys for the victims.
“There is not a uniform best-practice or protocol for ordering surrender or for tracking that,” said Krishnayya, the founder and Executive Director of the Center for Victim and Human Rights. “The impetus is kind of on you (the victim’s attorney) to make sure that it’s happening. So we’re talking about resources, essentially. If we start asking for compliance hearings, there has to, of course, be judicial staff to be able to manage those things, we have to have the staff to handle those compliance hearings.”
CVHR only has the resources to ask for those compliance hearings in five to 10 percent of their cases. Krishnayya said firearms prohibitions are often enforced accidentally when the person comes into contact with law enforcement for another crime and police find out they should have turned over their guns.
“There is no follow up at this point”
There is very little data about people ordered to surrender firearms and whether they actually follow through and surrender them at all. I-Team 8 went searching for answers and found none. From the county level all the way to the Indiana Supreme Court, no one seems to be collecting information about these offenders and what happens after they are ordered to give up their guns.
I-Team 8 decided to dig up and put together that information ourselves. We used court records from Marion County for the first half of 2016 and compared them to each individual’s criminal background. We found 18 percent of domestic violence offenders went on to commit acts of domestic violence again after being ordered to surrender their firearms.
The same data showed 25 percent of the domestic violence offenders went on to commit other crimes, including breaking and entering, auto theft, battery, resisting law enforcement, and even murder. This shows a significant number of domestic violence offenders continue committing violent crimes, and not just within their own homes.
“We have to think about safety issues for not only the victim in the case, but also for law enforcement and other people who might be in contact with that individual who has the firearms,” said Krishnayya.
Where is the follow up to make sure that those firearms are surrendered?
“There is no follow up at this point,” said Kelly McBride, Executive Director of the Domestic Violence Network.
McBride is also a member of Marion County’s Domestic Violence Fatality Review team. The team looked at six domestic violence murder-suicides. The cases had to have been from at least three years ago and the family had to be willing to talk.
“We want to identify ways in which we can prevent it from happening,” McBride said. “And five out of the six homicides occurred with a gun, and out of those five, four of the perpetrators possessed a gun illegally.”
She said most of those perpetrators had prior charges involving firearms.
“It says to me that we’re not enforcing the gun laws that currently exist,” said McBride.
Advocates like McBride and attorneys like Krishnayya emphasize this is a public safety issue—not just for those in violent relationships, not just for law enforcement, but for everyone.
“In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that this is about a nine billion dollar a year problem,” Krishnayya said.
A “law with no teeth”
Analyzing court records and criminal backgrounds of dozens of criminals, I-Team 8 found of all the people charged with murder in Marion County in 2018, 17 percent had prior domestic violence charges.
“We don’t want the government to take people’s guns either,” said McBride. “If you’re a responsible gun owner, it is your right to own and possess a firearm. As domestic violence advocates, we want those to be possessed legally. We want the laws that are in place to be adhered to, and applied, it can save lives. It makes the entire community safer.”
Possessing guns when you’ve been served with a domestic violence protection order isn’t just against state law – it’s against federal law. Advocates say it’s a law with no teeth – nothing to compel law enforcement or the courts to make sure those guns are turned over.
However, here are a handful of counties around the country who are doing more to make sure it happens. King County, Washington dedicated $1 million to create a task force that helps make sure gun surrenders actually happen.