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First order of business: Enforce existing federal gun laws

According to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, every day more than 80 Americans die from firearms.

According to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, every day more than 80 Americans die from firearms. Our children are 16 times more likely to be murdered with a gun, 11 times more likely to commit suicide with a gun, and 9 times more likely to die from a gun accident than children in 25 other industrialized countries combined (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

Still, even in light of these alarming statistics, Americans are reluctant to put into place greater gun safety and control laws. In the aftermath of the Tucson shooting, the debate over gun control and the Second Amendment is being heatedly discussed as we work to figure out how the shooting could have been avoided. And to add fuel to the debate here in Minnesota, the Republicans in the Legislature have proposed and are making headway with repealing the state’s system of gun background checks and permits because they believe it to be duplicative of federal laws.

But should we rely on federal statutes when it comes to guns?

20 of the 22 national gun laws are not enforced
A 2003 report from Americans for Gun Safety reveals that 20 of the 22 national gun laws are not enforced. According to U.S. Department of Justice data, only 2 percent of federal gun crimes were actually prosecuted, and 85 percent of those cases were crimes of possession. That means the people illegally selling or transporting guns are almost never being charged under the firearms statutes.

Enforcement requires action by the justice system. And even though the U.S. Attorney’s Office is responsible for prosecuting federal crimes, state officials should not turn a blind eye toward them. However, when it comes to guns, frequently they do. One of the reasons is that many state laws are less restrictive than the federal statutes. This is the case in Minnesota, particularly as it pertains to firearm statutes designed to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers.

Federal law prohibits people who are subjects of an order for protection (OFP) stemming from an intimate partner relationship from possessing firearms. In 2004, 10 years after that restriction was passed as part of the Violence Against Women Act, WATCH conducted a monitoring project of OFP proceedings in family court. The study found that it was very uncommon for judges to explain in the courtroom that the federal statute would be in effect.

Although that has improved, it is rare that a judge will go further and provide information to the respondent about what he is legally obligated to do to be in compliance with the firearms prohibition if he does own guns. Defendants convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence are also prohibited from possessing guns under both state and federal law, but this is seldom mentioned in Hennepin County’s Domestic Violence Court, leaving victims unaware of this protection and defendants of their legal obligation.

Reluctance is rooted in a practical problem
The reason for this reluctance to enforce firearms statutes in these courts is rooted in a practical problem. No one has resolved where the guns should be stored during the time of the restriction or who should take responsibility for them. WATCH and many advocacy agencies, prosecutors, and judges have discussed this repeatedly, exploring various options for gun storage and identifying the obstacles to getting uniformity in how the statutes are enforced. An idea for a pilot project in domestic violence court in recent years was shelved over public defenders’ concerns that questioning defendants in court about gun ownership would violate their constitutional rights. If the defendant admitted in court to owning guns, he could be implicating himself and faced with having to illegally transport the guns in order to be in compliance with the statute.

So, even though in 2009, 50 percent of the domestic homicides in Minnesota were caused by gunshots, and in spite of the fact that the federal statute regarding prohibitions for domestic abusers with OFPs has been in place since 1994 and for convicted domestic abusers since 1996, Hennepin County still lacks a clear protocol on enforcement.

The good news is that many people working in Hennepin County law enforcement, the County Attorney’s Office, District Court, and community agencies believe enforcement is critical in stemming domestic violence, suicide and other violent crimes. We just need to work together to hammer out the protocols that will make enforcement a reality while ensuring defendant rights.

The Tucson shooting should spark much more than heated debate about whether existing state laws are duplicative of federal laws. It should ignite community leaders, law enforcement and yes, the Legislature, to develop a realistic plan that will result in fewer guns in the hands of those who want to hurt themselves or others.

Marna Anderson is the executive director of WATCH, a Minneapolis-based court monitoring and research organization focused on cases of violence against women.