Texas struggles to get guns away from domestic violence suspects, leaving victims in danger

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Published: Oct. 20, 2022 at 12:49 PM CDT
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(TEXAS TRIBUNE) - Robin remembers the .357 Magnum her ex-partner kept on his nightstand, loaded, every night of their seven-year relationship. The one he routinely polished in front of her. She remembers the other guns in the closet and under the seat of his truck.

Although her partner was on probation for assaulting a co-worker — which meant he wasn’t legally allowed to possess firearms — he continued amassing guns and using them to terrorize Robin. He threatened to kill her if she left.

Robin, who asked that her last name not be used because she fears retaliation from her ex-partner’s family, excused the violence, even as it escalated from holes punched in the wall to bruises beaten onto her body. She remembers the evening police came to their house in North Texas after a neighbor called to report a particularly violent episode. Robin evaded the officers’ questions, knowing the abuse that awaited her when they left.

Her abuser, whose father worked as a police official in the Dallas area, hoped to become a police officer one day. Robin said he spoke the police officers’ language, avoiding accountability.

Robin wasn’t surprised when her ex-partner later pointed the .357 at her, in their bedroom, and pulled the trigger. The bullet barely missed her. But it was the final straw for Robin, who spent the next several weeks laying the groundwork to leave her abuser.

Although there are laws on the books and court orders preventing certain people from possessing guns, there are few places in the state where the criminal justice system has programs to hand over firearms to law enforcement. Advocates of domestic violence survivors and Texas law enforcement agencies say the biggest barrier is a lack of resources needed to create what are called firearm transfer programs.

In Texas, where devotion to the Second Amendment is strong, law enforcement officials and advocates for domestic violence survivors see firearm transfer programs as a reasonable — and realistic — way to protect victims without incurring insurmountable opposition from gun rights supporters.

“Let’s use every tool already available to us,” Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzales said. “Forget the politics of trying to address all the other factors, red flag gun laws and everything else — this is already available.”

But getting programs off the ground to help implement existing law requires cooperation among police departments, district attorneys and advocacy organizations — which means these potentially life-saving measures take years to establish.

In 2021, 127 women were murdered by a male intimate partner with a firearm in Texas. Those deaths make up three-quarters of all the domestic violence-related murders committed by men against women. A domestic violence victim’s risk of death is five times higher if their abuser has access to a firearm. And women of color experience higher rates of domestic violence. Although Black women made up only 13% of the Texas population in 2020, they made up 25% of the victims killed by their intimate partners.

Texas law prohibits people who commit Class A misdemeanors or more serious crimes — which can include domestic violence and certain types of assault — from possessing a firearm for five years after their conviction.

Separately, judges who deem people a danger to family members or intimate partners can take the extra step to issue a protective order requiring people to relinquish the guns they already have.

“When you have more guns, it increases the lethality in domestic violence cases,” said Michelle Myles, the manager of Austin Public Health’s Office of Violence Prevention.

Yet there’s little oversight to ensure people prohibited from having guns don’t actually have access to them, so it’s unclear how many Texans who shouldn’t have firearms still have access. And it’s also unknown how many people have been killed by an abusive partner who shouldn’t have had a firearm.

Harris County has one of only 10 firearm transfer programs in the state. Amy Smith, the senior director of operations and communication at the Harris County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council, worked with local law enforcement to establish the program. She said before it got started, authorities took criminals at their word about whether they had firearms. And the so-called proof often presented to judges wasn’t necessarily reliable.

“It could be, ‘Oh, I gave it to my brother-in-law,’ and there was just a signed note from the brother-in-law, but that doesn’t mean that he just didn’t give it back,” Smith said.

While some larger entities, like Harris County, have operated these programs for years, other communities around the state, like Grayson County north of Dallas, have been taking slow steps with local law enforcement agencies to establish surrender protocols. Advocates are pleased with the progress made so far, but obstacles remain before these programs are set up and running smoothly.

“There’s just no implementation plan for it,” said Molly Voyles, the director of public policy at the Texas Council on Family Violence.

A program in progress

Harris County started its Safe Surrender program three years ago. It has since collected 153 guns, and the sheriff’s office has 131 firearms stored in its property room. The others were returned after the five-year ban on possessing a firearm ended or were destroyed per the owner’s request. There were 54 protective orders that led to gun transfers.

Those orders came from the 280th District Court, a family court that issues protective orders and is overseen by state District Judge Barbara Stalder, who has been key to making Harris County’s firearm transfer program work.

Gonzalez, the sheriff, said relinquishing guns happens best in a court setting, where abusers typically follow the legal mandate to relinquish firearms and the process through which that transfer takes place.

When the program first started, Stalder offered those under a protective order an option to sell their guns or relinquish firearms to a family member. But it became clear that it was too difficult to ensure abusers didn’t have access to guns. Now, Stalder says she tries to ensure every protective order involving a gun results in firearm relinquishment to the sheriff. The process does not entail law enforcement or anyone else seizing or confiscating weapons from people’s homes.

“We’re just allowing them to follow the law,” said Smith, with the domestic violence council.

In Stalder’s courtroom, the protective orders she issues are aimed at getting guns away from people who are harassing, stalking or harming partners or family members, but these don’t require a criminal conviction to issue. Depending on the nature of threatening behavior, Stalder said the protective order could ban someone from possessing guns for two years, or a lifetime, if, for example, there is a felony charge associated with the protective order.

The guns surrendered to the county are processed to determine whether they were involved in other crimes and then stored in the sheriff’s property room.

The process, which is resource intensive, doesn’t happen frequently. Smith suggests the significant logistical barriers and upkeep costs have prevented more parts of the state from establishing similar protocols. Harris County assigned one deputy sheriff to the program and requires support from property room staff, but there’s not a clear cost to maintain the program.

“I think other communities maybe don’t have a law enforcement agency that’s willing to do that because of the cost, because of storage, because of manpower,” Stalder said. “Especially in rural communities, I could see that as being problematic.”

Two components Gonzalez noted as crucial are a receptive law enforcement agency to facilitate the transfer of guns and a “local champion,” like a judge, to advocate for the program’s creation.

Gonzalez conceded that the sheriff’s office previously viewed some aspects of domestic violence as court issues, which fell outside law enforcement’s purview. But the program’s success has improved communication among law enforcement, the courts and domestic violence survivors.

Stalder has tried to expand the program to other civil and criminal courts but failed to get others on board. She suspects this is because other judges are hesitant to add more work to already burdened dockets.

For now, the Harris County program’s existence hinges on Stalder’s participation. Ideally the program would be associated with a court, instead of an elected official like Stalder, to ensure continuity of the surrender protocols.

Although successive judges could maintain the program’s existence, Smith warned of another possible scenario.

“If you just have it tied to one particular person, then if that person doesn’t get reelected, then the program goes away,” she said.

Stalder lost the Democratic primary in March, but Smith said that both incoming candidates, Democrat Damiane Curvey and Republican Rose Cardenas, agreed during a forum earlier this month to maintain the program.

Smith said the program isn’t meant to be the definitive answer to preventing more domestic violence deaths. But, she said, it is a tool to help keep survivors safe, even if it’s not highly utilized throughout the state. Smith acknowledges that the law enforcement agencies that collect, inspect and store the weapons only have so many resources to devote to the issue.

“It’s not their unwillingness to do it, it’s their capacity to do it,” Smith said.

A tale of two bills

Texas lawmakers filed a litany of bills regarding how Texans handle and access guns during the 2021 legislative session.

House Bill 1927 proposed eliminating the requirement that Texans be licensed to carry handguns if they’re not prohibited by state or federal law from possessing a gun. Senate Bill 1967 sought to create a voluntary task force to spur more firearm transfer programs like the one in Harris County.

HB 1927, dubbed “constitutional carry,” was approved by both chambers and signed into law by the governor, despite concerns from law enforcement groups worried that permitless carry would endanger officers.

“That legislation really went in violation of what I still think is — was Texas’ long history of responsible gun ownership,” said Nicole Golden, the executive director of Texas Gun Sense, a gun violence prevention group.

By contrast, SB 1967, which Golden called “low-hanging fruit” in terms of gun regulations, languished in committee and eventually died without ever getting a hearing.

Advocates for domestic violence survivors were disheartened.

“At this point we’re just trying to help the people where there is already some codification in place, because we know in Texas it would be incredibly unpopular and most likely impossible to further gun restrictions,” said Krista DelGallo, the legislative director of the Texas Council on Family Violence.

The goal of the bill’s proposed task force was to gather experts to develop a plan communities could opt into to more efficiently overcome logistical hurdles. It was better than asking all of Texas’ 254 counties to come up with their own ideas, the bill’s proponents believed.

DelGallo said many lawmakers understood the task force was not about gun restrictions, but they still turned away.

“Something that’s not furthering the Second Amendment is seen as anti,” DelGallo said. “Just chipping away at that binary is so critical for our work and our advocacy in Texas, because it’s a false binary.”

The long road to gun surrender

For the past three years, Heather Mahaffey and Shelli Shields have been slowly building a coalition with law enforcement, attorneys and community partners to help domestic violence victims. The women help run the Grayson Crisis Center outside of Sherman, near the Texas-Oklahoma border.

Through the years, they’ve operated a court-mandated program for abusers and established a team made up of representatives from several governmental agencies to connect victims with counseling and housing. Their goal is to establish a firearm transfer program, much like the system in Harris County, to protect survivors from gun violence.

Shields and Mahaffey have been sowing the seed with people from the sheriff’s office, police department, district attorney’s office and other agencies. But it’s been a slow process to secure buy-in.

“After three years, we had a group of people willing to have that conversation,” said Mahaffey, a program coordinator at the center. “That first year, when you brought up firearms, nobody would say anything.”

But establishing this program is difficult, said Shields, the center’s executive director. There aren’t many models in Texas for a county their size, which has a population of just over 135,000.

There are several logistical factors to nail down, like gun storage, collecting and returning the weapons, and processing the surrendered firearms, before the program can be operational.

That’s really the first step for a community to even consider a firearm transfer program, but it takes a couple of years to get to that place.

Austin, 260 miles south, is trying to establish its own similar protocols. The city’s violence prevention office recently received a $500,000 federal grant to create a firearm transfer program with Travis County and SAFE Alliance, an Austin-based nonprofit that supports domestic violence survivors. The program is still in the early stages of development, but Myles, the office’s manager, hopes its eventual expansion will shift attitudes around gun surrender in Travis County.

“The scale could be one thing now, but when we do the work it may be bigger because we build a better system that’s more coordinated and more transparent, and people feel OK relinquishing their firearms or reporting firearms that need to be relinquished,” Myles said.

The Travis County district attorney’s office established a firearm surrender program in Constable Precinct 5 in May. The office plans to partner with Myles and other groups to expand the program countywide.

“We are confident that in this moment when rising gun violence poses a threat to our public safety, all of our law enforcement and local government partners will do what it takes to get this done,” the district attorney’s office said in a statement.

After leaving her abusive ex-partner, Robin moved out of the Dallas area and began rebuilding her autonomy.

Now living in another state, she remembers an incident months after leaving the abusive relationship when she was pulled over by a police officer who recognized her from the evening he responded to the domestic violence call.

The officer said, “I remember that day and I saw your face.”

Robin thought, “If you saw my face, why couldn’t you help me?”

She believes programs like the ones advocates and officials are trying to establish in Travis and Grayson counties would have helped protect her when she felt so isolated and alone. She wishes officers had been better trained in identifying domestic violence and connecting her with advocacy groups. And she wishes she’d known her partner wasn’t supposed to have guns — or that the responding officers had checked for firearms.

“Had I known that those resources were available to me,” Robin said, over 20 years after leaving her ex-partner, “I could have left then, before the gun and before being shot at and before the violence started getting worse and worse, but I didn’t know.”

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