Solution to domestic violence homicide: Fewer guns or more guns?

Starkly different approaches proposed in bills

SINCE 2012, THERE have been 82 domestic violence homicides in Massachusetts, many involving the use of a gun.

What’s to be done about these tragedies? The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee heard testimony on Tuesday on two bills with starkly opposing solutions to the problem, both solutions involving access to guns.

One bill would create a new kind of court proceeding allowing family members and others (such as law enforcement officials) to ask a judge for an “extreme risk protective order,” that would allow police to take away any guns belonging to persons considered to be a danger to themselves or others. One of the bill’s sponsors, Democratic state Rep. Paul Tucker, a former Salem police chief, says , “We’ve seen too many tragedies where we wonder if we could have done something to prevent it,” and that “there are times when we have to exercise extraordinary power.”

Another bill, supported by the Gun Owners Action League, has an entirely different answer. Restraining orders are ineffective — “paper does nothing to protect people” — the organization says (an assertion that’s contrary to conclusions drawn by the American Academy of Psychiatry).  What is needed, GOAL contends, is to back up that paper with the threat of a firearm.

That bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Kate Campanale, Republican of Leicester, laments that the option of gun ownership is not more widely known, a defect the bill would correct by requiring the state’s Executive Office of Public Safety to inform people who have obtained domestic violence restraining orders of all their self-defense options (both lethal and non-lethal) and how to go about exercising those options. “Knowledge is power,” she says.

The most controversial part of the bill is by no means this proposed educational outreach on self-defense options. Instead, it’s a change to the state’s self-defense statute, a proposal that receives almost no discussion in GOAL’s press release. Currently, that statute recognizes a claim of self-defense only for persons who are in their homes and who reasonably believe that a person there unlawfully is about to inflict great injury or death upon them. People in these circumstances — and only in these circumstances — do not have a duty to retreat and can claim self-defense in a criminal prosecution.

GOAL’s bill would eliminate the duty to retreat — and thereby provide a “stand your ground” defense to persons who have obtained a domestic violence protection order who reasonably use force (deadly or otherwise) against the person who is the object of the order, not only in their homes, but in any place they have right to be. The street, a shopping mall, a day care center, any place.

GOAL has long sought to replace the general duty to retreat in favor of a general stand your ground law here. But the Trayvon Martin case in Florida and the Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut (which we tend to forget also included a domestic violence homicide) mobilized public sentiment instead in support of stricter gun control laws. The current, much more limited, proposal GOAL is advocating this session appears to recognize the odds against the wholesale adoption of a stand your ground law here in Massachusetts. It’s also in keeping with the National Rifle Association’s recent strategy to increase gun ownership by persuading women of its safety advantages.

Of course, whether the availability of guns would actually protect domestic violence victims remains a matter of very significant dispute. Gun control advocates cite studies demonstrating that ownership of a firearm simply creates the illusion of self-protection and actually makes women more vulnerable to injury or death.

Perhaps GOAL will offer studies to support its contentions that restraining orders are ineffective and that gun ownership increases women’s safety. At this point, the sole area of agreement between the supporters of each of these bills appears to be, as the League’s executive director has expressed it – “there’s a critical difference between feeling safe and being safe.”

Margaret Monsell is a staff attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.