Preemptive Strike
Domestic violence suspects should be forced to relinquish their weapons.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

"FIREARMS AND domestic strife are a potentially deadly combination nationwide." So wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg this week in an opinion upholding a federal law that bars convicted domestic violence abusers from possessing firearms. Seven justices, including conservatives Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr., joined the opinion. This is the same Supreme Court that held last year that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms. If the justices can bless such a law, one wonders why Maryland lawmakers cannot follow suit and embrace an equally sensible measure.

Yesterday, the Maryland House Judiciary Committee buckled to pressure from gun rights supporters and others and postponed a vote on a pair of bills to prevent domestic abuse suspects from possessing guns. One bill gives judges the discretion to take guns away from an individual who is subject to a temporary protective order. The other removes that discretion and compels the seizure of guns possessed by someone subject to a permanent protective order. A protective order may be entered in Maryland only if the judge finds "clear and convincing evidence" of abuse -- a much tougher standard than exists in most states.

The committee sensibly passed a third, related bill that extends the time during which protective orders may be served. Currently, such orders become invalid after 30 days if the suspect has not been served, forcing the victim to return to court to obtain new ones. The bill, sponsored by Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons (D-Montgomery), allows initial orders to be valid for up to six months without requiring renewal. Once the order is served, the suspect is entitled to a hearing within seven days.

As with any gun proposal, there has been strong resistence from opponents, including a surprising source: the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police. The organization argues that the livelihoods of police officers could be jeopardized if judges seize their weapons because of a frivolous domestic violence accusation. It is seeking a change that would give judges the discretion to allow officers to keep their guns even if they are under permanent orders. To be sure, every law has the potential to be abused, but the judicial oversight required by both gun seizure bills should be a check against that. More important, police officers who abide by the law and refrain from domestic violence have nothing to fear.

Preventing domestic abuse suspects from having guns does not guarantee that they will not harm their victims through other means. But it would go a long way in stemming violence: More than half of the domestic-violence-related murders committed last year in Maryland involved guns. The Judiciary Committee is scheduled to take up the gun seizure bills on Monday. Lawmakers should vote for these reasonable public safety measures and resist pressure to water them down.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company