By Bettina Weiss
June 14, 2016
Credit : Pexels.

In March, Eulalio Tordil’s wife filed for a protective order against him. The estranged couple has a daughter in high school and were living in separate homes in Maryland. A protective order, also known as a temporary restraining order, helps put space between a domestic violence abuser and victim to ensure the victim’s safety until a hearing can be conducted. Details of protective orders vary by state: some are seen as suggestions for behavior while others demand certain standards.

In Tordil’s case, the 62 year-old man was put on administrative leave from the Federal Protection Service, a department of Homeland Security, because of the protective order. At that time, he surrendered at least 10 guns under a judge’s order issued after Tordil’s wife accused him of physically and sexually abusing his family. However, Tordil kept at least one weapon, which he legally purchased in Las Vegas in 2014, when he handed in the rest of his arsenal: a .40-caliber Glock.

During the first week of May, Tordil used this weapon kill his wife in her car, in the parking lot of their daughter’s school. The following day, he shot four more people, killing two of them, before he was apprehended by the police. Local law enforcement had no way of knowing he owned the gun that became the murder weapon because there is no state registry in Nevada, and even more consequentially, no national registry of guns.

How did this happen? Maryland has some of the strongest state gun laws in the country, and they were all followed in Tordil’s case. But even strong state laws cannot make up for weak federal ones. Despite the deadly combination of guns and domestic violence, and stories like Tordil on the news, the federal government has been stagnant on passing laws to keep firearms out of the hands of domestic violence abusers.

Domestic Violence: A National Problem Without Federal Oversight

Domestic violence is an epidemic in the United States. Domestic violence affects everyone regardless race, class, ethnicity, geographical location, or age: the elderly couple up who lives the street from you, the young family at the corner of the block, the couple you see at church, and the big happy family that you see in photos, all of these people have the same possibility of experiencing, or knowing someone, who has experienced domestic violence. It is a crime of power and control and can include behaviors like stalking and sexual violence. On average, 24 people are victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner every minute in the United States — more than 12 million people over the course of a year.

The National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) conducts an annual “Domestic Violence Counts” Census to provide a complete understanding of how many people seek services for domestic violence on a daily basis. For the most recent census, more than 1,700 domestic violence programs participated. In just one day in September 2015, these programs served 71,828 victims of domestic violence.

Of those served, 40,302 domestic violence victims found refuge in emergency shelters or transitional housing provided by local domestic violence programs, and 31,526 adults and children received non-residential assistance and services, including counseling, legal advocacy, and children’s support groups.

“I came to NNEDV from Capitol Hill and used the information from the census while we were working on the reauthorization of Violence Against Women Act (VAWA),” said Ron LeGrand, Vice President of Public Policy for NNEDV. Even before working at NNEDV, he found the census to be “immensely helpful and enlightening” when discussing the gravity of domestic violence.

Unlike other areas, like automobile licensing and accidents, data on firearm registration and deaths is hard to come by. Domestic violence data is more accessible due to research centers like the NNEDV and the National Domestic Violence Hotline. In 1996, Congress imposed a ban on gun violence research for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

However, research on the effect that firearms has had on domestic violence is well researched and clear: adding a gun into a home or relationship where domestic violence is occurring is a fatal catalyst. A 2015 report from the Violence Policy Center reveals that 94 percent of women killed by men were murdered by someone they knew, and of those victims who knew their killers, 62 percent were either married to or intimate acquaintances of the men who took their lives. These crimes are most commonly committed by loved ones, not by strangers. In fact, 15 times as many women were murdered by a man they knew than were killed by male strangers in single victim/single offender incidents in 2013. Of victims who knew their offenders, 62 percent were wives, common-law wives, ex-wives, or girlfriends of the offenders.

These relationships are intimate and complicated. Despite any physical or sexual abuse that is occurring, the most dangerous time for a victim is when there is a shift in power. “Unquestionably the most dangerous time for victim is when they are taking any steps to protect themselves, regardless of how small. Leaving is the most vulnerable time, as abusers will work that much harder to control their victim and bring them back under their thumb,” said Lil Corcoran, Associate Director of the Center of Hope and Safety, a New Jersey domestic violence shelter.

At the moment, federal law prohibits abusers who have been convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors and abusers subject to certain domestic violence restraining orders from possessing firearms. The Lautenberg Amendment, an amendment to the Gun Control Act of 1968, makes it illegal for any person “convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” to have firearms or ammunition affecting interstate commerce.

States Protecting Victims Through State Legislation

In Maryland, where Tordil lives and killed three people, the person subject to the order must surrender to law enforcement any firearm in his or her possession and refrain from possession of any firearm for the duration of the protective order.In Tordil’s case, law enforcement collected Tordil’s known weapons, and his employer confiscated a work-issued gun and placed him on administrative duty.

A 2013 investigation by the New York Times found that more than 50 people in Washington State were arrested on gun charges in 2011 while subject to protective orders, and that, over a three-year period, more than 30 people in Minnesota were convicted of an assault with a dangerous weapon while subject to protective orders.

Last month, the Connecticut General Assembly passed a temporary restraining order bill that would require those subject to a temporary restraining order to give up their firearms within 24 hours of the order being served. The bill, “An Act To Protect Victims of Domestic Violence,” also known as HB5054, was signed into law on May 26 by Governor Dan Malloy, who was the main sponsor of the legislation.

The Law Center to Prevent Gun violence outlines where states stand on domestic violence legislation. With Governor Malloy’s signature, Connecticut joined Colorado, Delaware, District of Columbia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, and West Virginia as the newest state to have laws that specifically prohibit firearm purchase or possession by persons convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence offenses.

These states are setting an example for their federal counterparts, and hopefully will pave the way for federal legislation, too.

“When [federal lawmakers] see that it’s happening back home in their states, it may give them the kind of encouragement—or cover—to go ahead and act on some of the federal legislation,” said LeGrand. “It’s important for them to see this is what’s happening. It’s already happening in your state,” said LeGrand, “Maybe that will give them the incentive—you know, I’m inclined to say—courage, to do what’s right. I don’t know if it’s necessarily about courage, but maybe it is. If they’re really intimated by the gun lobby, then maybe it is about the courage to act and do the right thing.”

It’s frustrating for advocates of domestic violence to hear about the courage that lawmakers neglect to use when victims of domestic violence must call on courage every day to stay alive and hopefully escape abuse. In fact, some serious courage is required when leaving an abusive relationship, which is the most dangerous moment for a victim.

Temporary Restraining Orders & Protective Orders

When victims of domestic violence make the decision to leave, safety planning is critical for success. As Corcoran highlighted, the time when a victim chooses is the riskiest time. In conjunction with thorough safety planning, victims have the option to file for a temporary restraining order, also known as a protective order. This is one tool that can be used to keep distance between the victim and the abuser.

“Orders of protection are just pieces of paper.  If an abuser has no respect for the document, or no respect for law enforcement or the judicial system, they will not be adequate protection for a victim.  So, we always recommend that orders of protection be part of a more robust safety plan,” said Cathy Zeiner, Executive Director for Safe Futures, a Connecticut domestic violence shelter.

In theory, after this order is issued, the abuser, then referred to as the respondent, must stay away from the victim, then referred to as the petitioner. The weight of these orders vary by state and may lack proper enforcement.

What if the abuser has a gun? Even with a temporary protective order, “the risk is still there for someone whose abuser is intent on harm,” said Zeiner. “It will be important for each victim to have a comprehensive safety plan, and as part of that plan, for victims and their advocates to monitor how an abuser’s access to firearms is managed all along the process, in order to truly stay safe.”

When and how weapons are removed from the household are extremely important factors, and also referred to as “mechanism for surrender” which can vary by municipality.

“Sometimes judges order for firearms to be removed from a home, but there is no mechanism for law enforcement to retrieve the weapons and then there is no compliance review to see if it happened, said Millicent Shaw Phipps, Managing Attorney at the National Center for Protective Orders and Full Faith & Credit (NCPOFFC).

The rate at which temporary restraining and protective orders are applied for and accepted or denied is unknown. “That’s the million dollar question,” said Phipps. “Courts are responsible for keeping data about applications for orders, and they do not freely disseminate that information.” This lack of research is also detrimental for victims of domestic violence because it fails to establish a legitimacy for claims of domestic violence, which feeds opposition—especially in the legislative space.

Despite the research behind the fatal risks of domestic violence, some legislators oppose legislation because they feel it infringes on the alleged abusers’ right to bear arms. Scott Wilson is the president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense league, an organization that “helps Connecticut citizens defend their 2nd amendment rights,” according to their website. “We feel it is important for the public to understand that individuals who may be served with an order of this type do not even have to be charged with any crime, let alone convicted of wrongdoing,” said Wilson.

“It’s very unfortunate that proponents of this bill that hold office and have sworn to uphold our constitution are working hand in hand with groups that are specifically misleading the public. These groups are essentially claiming those who get served with one of these orders are factual domestic abusers based on one-sided claims.”

Opponents, like Wilson, don’t use facts and figures to back up these claims. Questioning the validity of a domestic or sexual violence claim is common but baseless. “False allegations of domestic violence are not common, despite what the media and certain other groups suggest.  More often than not, victims minimize their risk – to themselves and to others,” said Zeiner.

Thankfully, victims now have more resources than ever before. Shelters, hotlines and educational services are available in every county across the country, and national resources are working non-stop to provide assistance to victims who are experiencing all kinds of interpersonal violence.  The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) provides a one-stop resource for victims looking for services in their area. The Women’s Law Center provides state-by-state information for victims to find specific provisions about temporary restraining order and protective order statutes in their states. As more states move to develop stronger laws, and address domestic violence as a complicated problem that is made deadly with the availability of firearms.

Tordil slipped through the cracks of the system and was able to inflict irreversible harm on his family and strangers. Removing access to firearms from a domestic violence abuser is, more often than not, an extremely important step to keeping a victim safe. Of course, laws are rarely able to prevent every possible act of violence—but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth having.

“The bottom line? Someone who is determined to do harm is going to find a way to do it. We can put as many laws and safe guards in place as we want to but at the end of the day someone who is hell bent and determined to get back at the petitioner is likely to find a way, but we have to everything that we can do,” said LeGrand. “But does that mean we give up? Of course not. We put as many laws and safe guards in place to remove guns from intimate partners that are abusive.”

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