PROHIBITED POSSESSOR: Judge says the “honor system” is not working

Published: May. 23, 2023 at 7:59 PM MST|Updated: May. 24, 2023 at 3:04 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (13 News) - It’s a stunning stat on gun dangers.

Research shows domestic violence is five times more likely to be deadly when a firearm is involved. A Tucson magistrate judge is working to lower the counts through a pilot program funded through a federal grant.

13 News Investigates covered Gracie McDonough’s strangulation case extensively.

A judge recently sentenced her attacker to probation.

Gracie also has a protection order against him and he’s been ordered to turn over any firearms.

She said he has a gun and she’s seen it, but Judge Wendy Million said it’s not been easy to enforce gun surrenders in Tucson. And she’s been working to change that.

Gracie McDonough is in constant fear that her ex-boyfriend, the father of their child, could strike again.

The Pima County Attorney’s Office had stated in a court document that there’s a “high risk to re-offend.”

Gracie said, “I’m scared to do anything because I have a restraining order on him, but if I go to the gas station and he’s there, I can call the cops, but in that five minutes if he wants me dead, I’ll be dead.”

A gun wasn’t used in the crime, so the courts and law enforcement would only rely on Gracie’s word that he has one.

Judge Wendy Million says that’s not enough because Arizona laws protect gun and civil rights. And the system right now leans on trusting the accused.

PCSD Detective Shawn George said, “I’d say probably on a majority of the cases that relies solely on that honor system.”

Judge Million said, “So without the police having the ability to say ‘here’s a protective order, we’re gonna come in and take your guns,’ then the odds are very low that that person’s going to surrender their gun.”

Digging into the City of Tucson’s data of misdemeanor domestic violence cases over the past two years, records show more than 30 arrests involving weapons.

Jail records reveal over three years, nearly 150 prohibited possessors were arrested for having weapons with several caught multiple times.

Judge Million hopes to prevent a tragedy, as with Brandon Watt’s case, who was a violent felon featured in our Free to Kill investigative series.

He had been accused of domestic violence with a deadly weapon and ordered not to possess a gun.

Watts had been out of jail on pretrial release when he shot and killed his girlfriend while barricaded in a hotel with hostages and then took his own life.

Million has partnered with Emerge, local law enforcement, prosecutors in probation, defense attorneys, a U-S Attorney and a tribal prosecutor.

Million said, “So we have to work without the bounds of those laws to try to make it a process where someone understands, especially with a protective order, that you’re just transferring your gun while the protective order’s in place.”

The operative word here is “transfer,” meaning the firearm is not “seized.”

Here’s how the pilot program works.

If there’s enough evidence to warrant the accused might be a threat, a judge can order the firearm to be turned over in X amount of time to keep the gun “safe.”

Law enforcement is then notified the weapon is coming. If the accused fails to turn it over by the deadline, law enforcement said they could try to get the accused to hand it over.

But if that doesn’t work, the person can be charged with failure to comply with a court order.

“So that’s pretty much how we have to frame everything in this state,” said Million.

When 13 News Investigates asked whether it was a step in the right direction, Detective George answered, “I think so, yes. It’s just trying to get that enforcement kind of in motion.”

Community outreach is another big part of the grant, particularly in underserved communities.

Million said she’s beginning with listening sessions.

“What do you feel like, where are we not protecting people as firearms and responses and are they not telling us things because they don’t trust the system? Or do they feel like there’s a certain hole in the procedures? And so I think it’s going to be a great project. Everybody’s on board with it,” she said.

13 News Investigates checked with law enforcement and at this point, there’s no record of Gracie’s ex-boyfriend turning in a weapon.

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