Compromise Weighed on Domestic Violence Bills

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 20, 2009

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration is considering changes sought by law enforcement officers and defense lawyers in its domestic violence proposals to improve the legislation's chances for passage in a key General Assembly committee.

The Maryland Fraternal Order of Police is seeking an exemption to two bills proposed by O'Malley (D) that would give judges more authority to remove firearms from domestic abuse suspects. The group contends that law enforcement officers need their weapons to do their jobs.

And defense lawyers on the House Judiciary Committee are seeking language that would require victims to show a judge that alleged abusers have used or threatened violence before they must surrender their guns.

"We are open to working with the General Assembly on any necessary changes, provided that at the end of the day, the bills provide meaningful protections for victims," Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D) said in an interview.

Brown and other advocates pressed their case for tightening the law yesterday at a hearing of the Judiciary Committee, which in the past has resisted the firearms bills and other domestic violence legislation because of concern for the rights of suspects and gun owners.

"My child is dead," Kate Wood, a retired Baltimore police officer, said after recounting how her daughter unsuccessfully asked a judge to remove her estranged boyfriend's handgun, two days before he shot her in the throat. "Pass the bills, please."

The panel was scheduled to hear 18 bills, including legislation to require convicted abusers to wear Global Positioning System devices while on probation and a measure to establish a state database of protective orders that police could call up from their cruisers. Of 500 homicides in Maryland last year, 75 resulted from domestic violence, victim advocates said. Guns were used in half the domestic violence slayings.

One of the governor's bills would allow judges to order suspects to give up their guns when served with a seven-day protective order; the courts now have no authority to remove firearms during that period. The other bill would require that guns be removed after a court hearing in which a final protective order is issued; the current law does not require it.

"This is about removing lethal weapons from people with a propensity to violence," said Stacy Mayer, O'Malley's deputy legislative officer, calling the bills "narrowly tailored."

Opposition from the Fraternal Order of Police has helped doom firearms bills in the past, despite support from many police chiefs. But Brown sought the group's support this year. FOP lobbyist Percel O. Alston Jr. said law enforcement officers are at a disadvantage because they can be fired if they are subject to a protective order, even if the allegation is false. "Unlike any other professional, with us the removal of a firearm after an allegation results in the loss of a job," Alston said.

One lawmaker said an exemption for police would amount to special treatment for one group. "How are they different than somebody who has a security clearance? A politician?" asked Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr. (R-Cecil) "We're allowing some abusers to keep their guns and others to lose them."

Alston said that his group generally supports the bills but wants judges to find that suspects used violence or threatened violence before taking their guns away. Many committee members said such a standard should apply to everyone, not just law enforcement officers.

"The definition of abuse is expansive," said Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons (D-Montgomery), ranging from violence to a disagreement that later gets worked out.

Victim advocates said the gun laws would not stop all domestic violence-related killings. But they said that when a suspect has a gun, violence is more likely. "I'm saying give me the chance to take that weapon away," Howard County Police Chief William McMahon said.

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