Conviction often not enough to keep guns from domestic abusers

Updated: Nov. 7, 2017 at 8:57 PM MST
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Anna Harper-Guerrero concerned for the victims. She's the Executive Vice President of Emerge!...
Anna Harper-Guerrero concerned for the victims. She's the Executive Vice President of Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse. (Source: Tucson News Now)

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - A history of violence followed the Texas Church Shooter, and some of Tucson's anti-violence leaders are responding.

According to an Associated Press report, the shooter was kicked out of the Air Force following a court-martial two years after he enlisted for abusing his wife and reportedly hitting her child hard enough to fracture his skull.

In these domestic violence cases, it's a challenge for Arizona authorities to get guns out of the criminal's hands.

"There's enormous fear," said Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall, talking about the domestic violence victims. "One of the things that we deal with all the time is cases in which those firearms are used against victims. Often times, what we find when that's the case, is that the victim has had threats of violence using that firearm before, and they haven't reported it."

The risk is there for the victims.

Federal law states that any felony or misdemeanor conviction means the criminal cannot possess or purchase a firearm. In Arizona, a felony conviction dictates a probation officer checking on the offender, LaWall said. But for a misdemeanor, a court order might not be enough.

It's one of her biggest challenges as a prosecutor.

"The vast majority of domestic violence offenders are not people who have been convicted of felony domestic violence. They're the individuals who have been convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence in our city courts and justice courts throughout Arizona. The vast majority of those individuals are placed on unsupervised probation. So they may be on a probationary period but there's no probation officer. We don't have the resources to place every single one of them under the supervision of another individual," LaWall explained. "They're unsupervised, and there is no method to be able to ascertain whether, in fact, they still have firearms in their possession or whether they don't."

It's these gaps in the gun laws and various loopholes that have people like Anna Harper-Guerrero concerned for the victims. She's the Executive Vice President of Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse.

"Where there are gaps, there is risk for somebody."

No supervision leaves the victims vulnerable, she said.

"The kind of systemic failure that we saw in that (Texas) case, with respect to tracking that this individual did not have a firearm, feels very common," Harper-Guerrero said.

The Air Force failed to report the accused Texas church shooter's domestic violence conviction to the FBI as required by Pentagon rules, officials said Monday. He was convicted of assault against his wife and stepson in an Air Force court-martial in New Mexico in 2012 and served 12 months in confinement before being given a bad-conduct discharge in 2014.

The relaying of information could have prevented the purchase of the guns used in Sunday's mass shooting, where 26 people were killed in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

According to a statement from LaWall, police in Arizona, "'may remove' firearms when responding to a domestic violence incident. This authority is discretionary and depends on the circumstances surrounding the abuse incident - necessary for protection of victim, weapons in plain view or discovered pursuant to a consent search."

LaWall said that those conditions of firearm removal do not require the gun to be used, and do not require an arrest to be made, but there must be a "gun-related risk of harm before removal."

Arizona is one of 11 states where police and the courts have the authority to remove guns from domestic violence offenders, according to a state-by-state summary provided by LaWall.

When Victim Services advocates, or police investigators, show up at a domestic violence call, they have the ability to question the victims about the danger using a lethality screening.

The questionnaire includes items asking if the suspect has "ever used a weapon against you or threatened you with a weapon?" or "Does he/she have a gun or can he/she get one easily?"

A note on the lethality screening states that the questions determine the "level of risk a person faces" and is based on the "best available research on factors associated with lethal violence by a current or former intimate partner."

Lethality Screen for PCAO VSD - Bilingual (Final) by Tucson News Now on Scribd

Having those guns in the home, during a tense time and a situation of domestic abuse, puts the risk and lethal levels.

"When you think about the experience of a survivor, being threatened with a gun, knowing a gun is in the home, or even just seeing it in the context of a relationship where abuse is happening, it's sort of a reminder about how it could end," Harper-Guerrero said.

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Copyright 2017 Tucson News Now. All rights reserved. Associated Press contributed to this article.