New procedure takes guns from hands of those who might kill
JANESVILLE--The story is too familiar:
A man beats up his wife or girlfriend.
The woman asks a court for a restraining order against the man.
The judge orders the man to stay away from her.
The man kills her.
The risk of homicide by an intimate partner increases when guns are in the home, studies have shown. One study said the risk increases by more than fivefold.
Of the 89 people killed in domestic violence incidents in Wisconsin in 2011 and 2012, 29 died from gunshots, according to the most recent domestic violence homicide report from End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin.
One way to reduce the number of killings is to remove the guns.
Wisconsin law has long required people to surrender their firearms if they are subject to domestic-violence restraining orders. Judges ordered the guns turned in, but no one followed up.
“There really weren't any guns coming in, and that's true around the state,” said Rich Sullivan, a longtime assistant district attorney in Rock County.
A few Wisconsin counties began doing something about it in recent years, and Rock County joined in last fall.
GETTING THE GUNS
The new procedure has resulted in 50 guns taken out of Rock County homes so far this year.
The procedure goes like this:
-- Rock County Court Commissioner Michael Haakenson holds a hearing to determine whether to issue a restraining order. Haakenson handles all of the county's domestic-violence restraining orders.
-- Both the accuser and the accused swear to tell the truth. Haakenson asks them a series of questions, including whether the accused has access to firearms. If the person lies, he could later be charged with perjury.
-- If Haakenson issues the restraining order, the accused must turn over the guns to the sheriff's office within 48 hours. The accused must bring the receipt from the sheriff's office to the clerk of courts office to prove he has done it.
-- If the guns are not turned in, or if the accused wants the guns held by a third party, Haakenson holds a “surrender hearing” one week after the first one.
A third party is usually a family member who signs a form pledging not to give the guns to the accused. Haakenson explains that if the the third party gives the guns back, he or she is criminally liable. To do so is a felony, which means the third party could go to prison.
Of the 50 guns turned over this year, 39 were turned over to a third party. Only 11 were being stored at the sheriff's office as of July 16.
-- If the guns aren't turned in, a judge could issue an arrest warrant and/or the district attorney's office could request a warrant to have police search the accused's home. That hasn't been needed, yet.
STORING THE GUNS
If a gun is kept at the sheriff's office, the gun is tagged with a number, and a paper file is created. The owner gets a paper receipt.
Each gun is stored in a cardboard box in an evidence room. When the gun is returned, the paper file is destroyed, and there's no record that the gun has been there.
That's because Wisconsin law forbids a gun registry. Electronic gun records are forbidden. The prohibition is so strong that The Gazette wasn't allowed to photograph one of the guns in storage because a photograph would be an electronic record.
The guns' serial numbers are checked to make sure they haven't been used in crimes, Deputy John Paulson said.
“Guns are a very valuable thing to people. A lot of times, they're passed on from generation to generation, and although they may not be worth a lot of money, the sentimental value is much more, so we have to make sure we take care of them,” Paulson said.
The owner can pick up the weapon when the restraining order runs out, which could be up to four years.
It's not a perfect system, but officials believe it can reduce the killings.
“We're very satisfied to see that in place. It was a missing link that needed to be filled,” said Sgt. Anne Brophy of the Janesville Police Department's domestic violence team, which advocated for the change.
Brophy said the sheriff's and district attorney's offices and the judges all had to agree to make the new system work, and they did so enthusiastically.
A similar protocol will be in effect statewide starting in November because of new legislation called the SAFE Act, but Rock County already complies with the law.
“We're ahead of the game,” Sullivan said.
The cost to taxpayers appears minimal: some deputies' and clerks' time and Haakenson's time.
“Overall, it's a great protection for not a lot of tax dollars,” Sullivan said.
But the protection is not perfect.
The most obvious loophole is that the judge has to rely on what he hears in court.
“They can always lie, of course, but if they get caught with (a gun), then they have a violation,” Brophy said.
Sullivan has had cases when he strongly suspected the suspects owned guns, but there was no way to prove it.
A case in point: Anita Satterlee of Hillsboro, who was assaulted in July 2011 by her estranged husband, Joseph Satterlee.
According to a report by End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin, Joseph pushed Anita down stairs. He was arrested for disorderly conduct.
About two weeks later, Anita got a domestic abuse injunction, which contained a firearms-surrender requirement.
Joseph surrendered several guns but kept a .357 revolver.
About a month after the first assault, Joseph rammed his car into her vehicle and shot Anita seven times, killing her. Then he committed suicide.
Another loophole: The third party could give the firearms back to the owner.
“All I can do is give them a stern lecture: 'If you let them use the firearms, then you go to jail,'” Haakenson said.
Since 2000, at least 50 Wisconsinites have been killed in domestic violence homicides when the perpetrators were legally prohibited from possessing firearms, according to Domestic Abuse Wisconsin. The organization advocates for background checks of those buying guns.
Sullivan said the new procedure is not the perfect solution.
“If a subject is determined enough, they'll find a way. They don't need a firearm to do it,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan noted that the weapon was a roofing ax in the last domestic homicide he prosecuted.
Some people might wonder how the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms figures in all of this. Sullivan pointed out that constitutional rights have limits. Speech is free, but it's not OK to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater, for example.
State and federal laws bar lots of people from possessing firearms, including felons and people who have been found mentally incompetent.
In these cases, a neutral party—a judge or magistrate—decides whether to limit the right to possess a weapon.
Haakenson has sympathy for people in domestic-abuse situations.
“They're angry at someone they loved or still love,” he said. “Logic is not driving their decisions. … Nice people do unusual things because emotions drive them.”
That's why removing the firearms just might save a life.