THE MARYLAND man had brandished a butcher knife at his wife, broken a glass bottle over his adult son’s head, poured gas on some clothes and threatened to burn down the house. Convicted of reckless endangerment, he was immediately disqualified from purchasing or possessing firearms under federal and state laws that recognize the danger posed to domestic violence victims when their abusers have access to guns. But at no point during the court proceedings was the man asked if he had firearms, warned of the legal consequences or urged to surrender any possible weapons.
His case was not unusual. According to a new report by a group that monitors Montgomery County courts, guns are virtually never discussed during criminal domestic violence cases. That failure has potentially lethal consequences; the chances of a victim being killed rise 500 percent when an abuser has access to a gun.
“Stark and disturbing” is how the nonprofit Court Watch Montgomery characterized its findings that judges in Montgomery County District Courts told only one out of 126 convicted domestic violence offenders that they were banned from owning or buying guns. No written notice was given, nor were offenders told that possessing a gun could result in a felony charge with a mandatory minimum sentence of five years.
In contrast, the report noted the efforts of officials in a number of departments, including police, sheriff’s and probation, as well as the State’s Attorney’s Office, to remove guns from domestic violence offenders during 911 calls, protective-order proceedings, prosecutions and probation. Part of the problem is weaknesses in the state law disqualifying gun ownership; unlike the law governing protective orders, it doesn’t require the surrender of firearms to law enforcement. Still, the report recommends a number of proactive steps the judiciary can take to more vigorously apply current law. These include telling offenders that they are disqualified, providing written information about the law and its consequences, asking defendants under oath if they possess firearms and giving relevant information to the Montgomery County Firearms Task Force for follow-up. The report also calls for reestablishment of the county’s domestic violence fatality review committee with annual public reports.
The report’s focus is Montgomery, but the information collected in the county raises questions that the courts should address statewide. So it’s encouraging that Maryland District Court Chief Judge John P. Morrissey has already asked for a review of the recommendations.