September 21, 2017 05:09PM
Legislative press bureau
PROVIDENCE — Legislation sponsored by Rep. Teresa Tanzi and Sen. Harold M. Metts to protect victims of domestic violence by disarming their abusers cleared the General Assembly today. It will now be sent to the governor’s desk.
The Protect Rhode Island Families Act would prohibit gun possession by domestic abusers convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence crimes and those subject to court-issued final protective orders, and ensure that all those subject to the prohibition actually turn in their guns when they become prohibited from possessing them. The bill takes effect immediately upon passage.
The bill developed to its current form through intense negotiations over the course of the three years since it was first introduced, and was the subject of strong public campaigns both for and against it. The sponsors and advocates reached an agreement that resulted in this amended version on June 30, but not in time for full passage before the Assembly recessed that evening.
Under current Rhode Island law, abusers convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence crimes and those subject to final restraining orders are not always prohibited from possessing guns nor are they always required to actually surrender the firearms they already possess once they become prohibited. Federal law already prohibits most of those convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors from owning guns, but Rhode Island does not have a mechanism for ensuring that they actually turn them in.
This bill would close these loopholes by requiring that abusers are prohibited under state law and are required to turn in their guns swiftly once they become prohibited from possessing them.
Under the bill, those convicted or pleading to a crime of domestic violence would have 24 hours to turn in any guns they possess. The act would apply to domestic violence crimes including assault, cyberstalking and cyberharrassment, violation of a protective order and disorderly conduct if the criminal act involves the use or attempted use of force or the threatened use of a dangerous weapon. Similar laws prohibiting gun possession by those convicted of misdemeanor domestic abusers exist in 27 states plus Washington, D.C., including Alabama, Texas, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire.
Under an amendment made on June 30, those subject to a protective order would have to surrender any guns they own within 24 hours of receiving notice of the hearing. (The previous draft to the bill would have allowed the person subject to the accusation to keep guns until the protective order is finalized by a judge.) At the hearing, which must be within 15 days under the amendment, the court may choose to maintain the prohibition, or to immediately return any firearms that were surrendered. The amendment requires that the subject of the prohibition show clear and convincing evidence that his or her firearm ownership is not a threat to the alleged victim’s safety.
Once a prohibited individual has completed his or her sentence, or the protective order has been lifted, he or she would be able to recover the surrendered firearms.
The amendment also returned a provision that would allow those prohibited from gun possession under the bill to give their guns to someone other than police or a licensed gun dealer, as long as the person is not a relative and does not live in the same household as the prohibited individual. The amendment also adds a requirement that the guns first be transferred to a licensed firearms dealer, who would ensure that the third party can legally possess firearms.
According to research by Everytown for Gun Safety, currently only five percent of domestic abusers under a final protection from abuse order in Rhode Island are required to turn in their guns. Even in cases when the restrained party’s record indicated a firearms threat, surrender is ordered only 13 percent of the time.
When a gun is present in a domestic violence situation, the woman is five times more likely to be killed, according to Everytown. Guns are the preferred weapon of intimate partner homicides. Between 1990 and 2005, more intimate partner homicides in the United State were committed with guns than all other weapons combined. Between 1980 and 2016, 232 Rhode Islanders died as a result of domestic violence, and 48 percent of them were killed with guns.
“At last, victims of domestic abuse in Rhode Island will not have the constant fear of knowing that the person who abused them still has a gun,” said Tanzi, who represents South Kingstown and Narragansett. “We’ve heard countless stories from victims about flagrant threats and ceaseless fear. And we know that the presence of a gun greatly increases the chances of a domestic violence victim being murdered. We’ve worked very hard to get to this point, and the reward will be greater safety for Rhode Island families.”
Metts described the bill as a good example of compromise in the legislative process.
“This bill will save the lives of people who have already been through too much, and I’m very proud of that,” said Metts, of Providence. “I’m also very proud of the way advocates from opposing interests came to the table and worked together so constructively to help make a bill something that we all can support... While no one got everything they would like, I will say that everyone agreed that victims of domestic violence should not have to live under legitimate fear for their lives, and we’ve cooperated to come up with a bill that greatly improves their protection while addressing Second Amendment concerns.”