With the expressed goal of stemming last year’s spike in domestic violence slayings, a House committee on Tuesday gave the nod to a bill that requires accused batterers who are under restraining orders — but not yet criminally convicted — to surrender their firearms and ammunition.
The proposal mirrors an existing federal law referred to as the Wellstone Amendment, a reference to the late senator’s best-known contribution to the 1994 Violence Against Women Act.
Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul, the bill’s chief author in the House, said codifying the federal law into statute will make enforcement less cumbersome and, therefore, more effective. At a meeting of the Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee, Schoen said the measure would protect victims of domestic violence and “reduce the number of women murdered.”
“We’re not going after law-abiding gun owners,” Schoen said. “[But] if you beat women or children, you don’t deserve a gun.”
Anticipating the concerns of the gun rights activists who filled the chamber, Schoen said that the bill does not allow the government to take firearms “without due process.” The accused would be provided with a notice of a judicial hearing, he noted. At that hearing, a judge or officer would have to make a determination of a credible threat.
Bree Adams Bill, a legal advocate with the St. Paul Domestic Abuse Prevention Project, said that firearms are typically used in about half of all domestic violence-related homicides and that “we must view all batterers as potentially deadly.”
In similar testimony, St. Paul City Attorney Sara Grewing told lawmakers that a woman is six times more likely to be killed if there is a firearm in the household. “He has a gun and I am scared” is among the most common phrases uttered by women seeking protective orders, Grewing said.
“We know it is not a panacea and that some people will still obtain weapons through other means,” said Grewing. But she added, “I have no doubt that it will save the lives of Minnesotans.”
Lone victim testifies against bill
The sole self-declared victim of domestic violence at the hearing voiced opposition to the proposal.
Julie Zappa, a St. Paul Park woman who said she was in an abusive relationship for five years, told lawmakers that batterers are unlikely to be deterred “by a piece of paper.”
“They’ll find a way to get a gun if they want a gun,” Zappa said. “I don’t want my pain to be used as a stepping stone to infringe upon my Second Amendment rights.” Zappa said those rights are “the base of my power as a citizen and I don’t want that messed with.”
Unlike last year’s highly contentious (and failed) effort to strengthen background checks on gun purchases, Tuesday’s hearing produced little in the way of fireworks. The relatively modest nature of the proposal also underscored the limited appetite among House DFLers to aggravate gun rights groups, particularly as they head into election season.
Of the eight firearms related bills introduced in the House this year, only one other — a modification of notification rules for permit holders carrying guns at the Capitol complex — has elicited significant opposition from gun rights advocates. The rest of the bills either extend gun rights or lack controversial provisions, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by Second Amendment advocates.
“Last year, they were throwing every anti-gun bill at the wall and seeing if it would stick. When our supporters and law-abiding citizens came out, it had a profound impact,” said Rob Doar, the lobbyist for the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, in a telephone interview. “It was a very powerful show of force.”
At Tuesday’s hearing, those advocates — many dressed in the maroon shirts that have become GOCRA’s fashion hallmark — packed the hearing room, just as they did last week when a Senate committee took its first run at the companion legislation.
In a rally-the-troops post on the group’s website, Andrew Rothman, GOCRA’s president, derisively referred to the proposed legislation as “Michael Bloomberg’s unconstitutional gun grab bill.” Testifying before the committee, he struck a much more conciliatory tone and thanked Schoen for his willingness to compromise on several key provisions included in a last minute, five-page amendment.
The most noteworthy of those changes: In the original version, individuals barred from possessing firearms would have been forced to surrender weapons to a law enforcement agency or a federally licensed gun dealer. The amended version allows for a third option in which weapons can be transferred to a friend or relative, so long as that party does not live with the accused.
The amendment stipulates that third parties sign an affidavit acknowledging responsibility — and the possibility of a gross misdemeanor charge — if an accused abuser regains access to a surrendered weapon.
At the hearing, Rothman pressed for a few more changes. One would classify affidavits documenting the transfer of weapons as private data. The other would extend the filing deadline for that affidavit by three days.
More broadly, Rothman questioned whether the bill would accomplish its stated goal.
“We appreciate the good faith of the folks who think this bill will help,” Rothman said. “But we are concerned about the fixation on hardware, on the mechanism, and not on the heart of the person who would do harm.” It would be better, he said, to go after the root causes of abuse or simply lock up repeat abusers.
Protests over possible cost
Jim Franklin, the executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs Association, said his organization supports the goals of the bill but expressed a preference for giving judges more latitude to “make decisions based on the totality of the situation.”
As a practical matter, Franklin said the bill would impose costs on law enforcement agencies, especially those that lack the proper facilities to handle long-term storage of firearms. In response, Schoen pointed out that the bill does not oblige law enforcement agencies to take custody of weapons.
Nonetheless, several Republican lawmakers on the committee reiterated that concern.
Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, said he was told by a chief deputy with the Isanti County Sheriff’s Department that constructing an appropriate, climate-controlled storage space could cost between $50,000 and $100,000 per year.
Johnson said the bill could produce “unintended” victims, too, since it calls for the removal of all firearms from a home, not just those that belong to the accused. As a hypothetical example, he imagined a scenario in which a boy might lose a chance to go hunting because his father was involved in a domestic dispute.
Rep. Jim Newberger, R-Becker, observed that only 10 of last year’s 38 domestic violence-related homicides in the state last year involved guns. He called those deaths “tragic losses” but, noting the state’s population of 5.5 million, called the number “rather small.”
“Ten is too many,” responded Schoen. In a voice vote, the bill was referred to its next committee stop.