Domestic violence and guns can be a lethal combination.
In 2014, Washington State adopted a firearms relinquishment law allowing courts to issue “Orders to Surrender Weapons” when entering certain types of protection orders (such as in the case of Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, etc.). But what does it take to go from “Voluntary Participation” or an honor system, trusting people will relinquish their firearms, to one of compliance?
Join us for this two-part recorded series (Part 1 and Part 2) as King County (Washington) Prosecutor Kim Wyatt and Program Manager Sandra Shanahan will be sharing information on Washington State’s new firearm laws to:
- Understand the heightened risk when abusers have access to firearms.
- Learn about Washington State’s new Extreme Risk Protection Order and the 2014 law that requires offenders subject to qualifying protection orders to surrender their weapons.
- Learn about the successes and challenges of this new approach.
Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): You’re both new presenters for the Justice Clearinghouse. Tell us about yourselves.
Sandra Shanahan: We have both worked for the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office for more than a decade. Prior to becoming the Program Manager of the new Regional Domestic Violence Firearms Enforcement Unit (RDVFEU), I managed the Protection Order Advocacy Program housed within the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office for 15 years. In that program, I assisted survivors of Domestic Violence as they sought civil domestic violence protection orders and engaged in system reform efforts to improve the response to domestic violence cases. It was in this capacity that I learned about the gaps between state and federal law related to firearm prohibitions and the implementation challenges the region faced once the new state law was adopted in 2014. In my new role in the RDVFEU, I have been working to build infrastructure, improve implementation, compliance and enforcement efforts related to firearm prohibition laws including the new Extreme Risk Protection Order.
Kim Wyatt: I am a Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney and have spent over half my career with KCPAO working on domestic violence cases. Most recently, I have been part of the newly formed Regional Domestic Violence Firearms Enforcement Unit working on firearm compliance cases and high-risk DV firearm offenders. I also work extensively on Washington’s Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO) cases. I most recently presented on ERPOs at the Washington Association of Sherriff’s and Police Chiefs- Mass Shooting Work Group.
I also have expertise in stalking cases and am nationally trained as a Professional Trainer on Stalking Victimization with the Office of Violence Against Women-Department of Justice. In 2013, I was also certified to train on Strangulation cases at the Advanced Strangulation Course for Trainers and Experts, San Diego (CA (2013).
JCH: Tell us about Washington State’s Firearm Prohibition laws including those related to domestic violence offenders and extreme Risk Protection Orders. How did this transpire?
Kim: Since the mid-1990s, federal law has barred certain categories of people from possessing weapons, including felons, persons who have been convicted of a domestic violence offense, and persons subject to certain restraining orders, among other prohibitors. However, those persons were not necessarily barred under Washington state law. While federal law clearly recognizes the heightened risk domestic abusers pose, it does not prohibit persons with temporary protection orders issued against them from possessing firearms (temporary orders are often issued because the court finds the risk is too great to wait until a hearing occurs). Nor does federal law require firearms to be relinquished, meaning that even though abusers are prohibited from purchasing other firearms, there is no mechanism to remove the firearms they already own.
To address these gaps, in 2014, the Washington State Legislature unanimously adopted ESHB 1840, a firearms relinquishment law. The law authorizes courts to issue “Orders to Surrender Weapons” when protection orders (Domestic Violence Protection Orders, Sexual Assault Protection Orders, and other types of protection orders) are issued. These orders prohibit ownership and access to firearms, prohibit purchase of additional firearms, and require the relinquishment of any and all firearms currently possessed by the respondent (and any Concealed Pistol License (CPL), if it exists). The firearm prohibition can also apply to temporary protection orders.
In 2016, Washington voters adopted the Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO) law, which is designed to temporarily prevent individuals who are at high risk of harming themselves or others from accessing firearms by allowing family, household members, or police to petition a court for an order that requires the person to surrender any firearms currently possessed and prohibits the person from purchasing or obtaining additional firearms. This order may be granted when there is demonstrated evidence that the person poses a significant danger to self or others, including danger because of a dangerous mental health crisis or violent behavior, such as threats to commit suicide or to kill or harm others at a school, place of worship, or business. Prior to this ERPO law, if individuals displayed warning signs of possibly harming themselves or others, their family and law enforcement had no legal authority to address the risk caused by access to firearms without asking that the person be arrested or hospitalized, which is not always the best option, and often only possible after the crisis became a tragedy.
Because of the heightened risk firearms (in the hands of DV offenders and those in behavioral health crisis) pose to victims, law enforcement, the community and themselves (risk of suicide) this area of the law requires swift action.
In 2014, the Washington State Legislature
unanimously adopted ESHB 1840, a firearms relinquishment law.
JCH: What had to change within your organization (and related organizations) in order to make this new system work?
Kim: These laws provided new, critically important legal authority for courts, prosecutors and law enforcement, but were not leading to significant results because they functioned largely on an honor system. While it was tremendously important that the laws were passed, even the best laws do little to protect victims without full enforcement and a clear delineation of who is responsible for that enforcement. A region-wide systems review conducted in 2016-2017 identified the need for a clear point of responsibility for enforcing the laws and made recommendations for resources, capacity, updated systems, practices, policies, and training to ensure the laws would be effectively enforced within and across jurisdictions (many cases involve parties living in different jurisdictions).
The systems’ review noted that these orders may be issued by Judges or Commissioners in Washington State’s Superior Courts, District Courts, or Municipal Courts, on many types of criminal and civil calendars. In King County, there are 39 different law enforcement agencies to which the courts may direct the responsibility for service of these orders. These 39 agencies vary significantly in size, budget, training and resources. The laws did not provide for funding of staff or technology, nor designate a point of accountability with authority to direct a complicated, multi-party, multi-jurisdictional, often fragmented system to ensure that there is compliance.
Interviews with law enforcement agencies in the region and a review of their policies, as well as limited available court data, showed that service and enforcement of the orders was not prioritized based on risk. Law enforcement policies also did not direct that officers uniformly remove firearms when lawfully possible from 911 domestic violence response scenes or from restrained parties when these types of court orders were served. Also, little tracking was being done to monitor what firearms were surrendered, whether all that were ordered surrendered were in fact surrendered, and how long it took for the firearms to actually be surrendered. This lack of data inhibited the ability to measure or evaluate whether victim and community safety were being improved.
As part of this systems’ review, model policy and a risk assessment tool for law enforcement were developed and many operational improvements were designed. The creation of a new unit was recommended to strengthen the ways law enforcement, courts, prosecutors, advocates and the community could work together across agencies and across jurisdictions to keep firearms out of the hands of individuals presenting the greatest risks of harm to themselves, their families, their communities, and law enforcement. The recommended reforms were adopted by elected officials in King County and the City of Seattle, funding was authorized, and a multi-year memorandum of understanding was entered. As a result, the Regional Domestic Violence Firearms Enforcement Unit (RDVFEU) was created and officially launched on January 1, 2018.
The Unit successfully removed 232 firearms during this time period.
By comparison, a total of only 124 firearms
were turned in during all of 2016.
JCH: How has this new system and law been received? Any success stories you can share?
Kim: In the initial six months of operation in 2018, the Unit assessed and researched almost 500 cases where Orders to Surrender Weapons had been issued by courts to prohibit future purchase and require relinquishment. The Unit successfully removed 232 firearms during this time period. By comparison, a total of only 124 firearms were turned in during all of 2016. The Unit also assisted in the voluntary relinquishment of additional firearms, as well as the removal of firearms through almost 50 ERPOs in that time period.
In King County,
there are 39 different law enforcement agencies
to which the courts may direct the responsibility for service of these orders.
JCH: What keeps you motivated in light of everything you see on a regular basis?
Kim: Being a part of a Unit that is dedicated to harm reduction and prevention is a tremendous privilege. We are inspired each day by the strength and courage of the survivors we serve who without our assistance, would still live under the threat of an armed batterer. We are also inspired by the level of engagement of our law enforcement partners in working up-stream to prevent gun violence, including suicide. While our Unit is still brand new and working hard each day to build practice and infrastructure, we are heartened by what we have been able to accomplish to date. Disarming those who are at heightened risk of violence to themselves or others (based on a court-order), before a tragedy occurs should be what every jurisdiction strives to do.
Click Here to Watch Part 1: “Domestic Violence and Firearm Relinquishment: From Honor System to Actual Enforcement.”