Michigan Democrats eye stricter gun restrictions for domestic abusers
- Michigan Democrats want to bar people convicted of misdemeanor domestic abuse from accessing firearms
- It would also prohibit all people subject to a restraining order for domestic violence from owning guns
- A Republican said the proposals are redundant because there is already a similar federal law
LANSING — A week before her death, Amber Jo Thomas sensed it coming.
On July 27, the 40-year-old Adrian resident filed a restraining order against her ex-boyfriend, Barry Garza, who she said abused and stalked her during and after a nine-year relationship.
“He has physically harmed me so many times already,” Thomas wrote in her restraining order application. “I'm scared. He has stated he was going to kill me several times.”
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A Lenawee Circuit Court judge approved the order the following day and barred Garza from owning or purchasing a gun, according to the court clerk’s office.
But before the order was served, on Aug. 3, Garza showed up at Thomas’ work in Saline, shot her in the neck and killed her, police said. He is facing charges of murder, assault with intent to murder and felony firearms and is being held without bond as he waits for trial.
Some Michigan lawmakers, seeking to reduce deaths stemming from domestic violence, want to tighten restrictions on accused and convicted abusers to gain access to firearms.
Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, and Rep. Amos O’Neal, D-Saginaw, plan to introduce a pair of bills in September that would suspend someone’s access to guns if they are convicted of a misdemeanor of domestic violence or subject to a personal protection order.
Under the legislation, those subject to the ban would be prohibited from buying, owning or transporting firearms for eight years, Chang told Bridge Michigan on Monday.
It is unlikely the legislation would have saved Thomas’ life, since the judge hearing her restraining order application had already prohibited Garza from owning firearms. But Chang and others contend the bills would give abuse victims another tool to prevent harm.
State law already prohibits those convicted of felonies — including domestic violence felonies — from owning a gun three to five years after they complete their sentence.
But there is no state law banning those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from owning a gun. There is a federal ban that does that, but gun reform advocates argue it does not apply to all domestic abusers and relies on limited federal resources for enforcement.
The state does allow people who say they were abused to ask the court to restrict their alleged abusers’ firearm access when applying for a restraining order, but it is up to the judge to decide if that’s necessary. There is no statewide data on how many people in Michigan have had their gun access revoked due to a restraining order.
The proposal would provide “additional guardrails” for victims “to make sure that it’s not necessarily something someone has to petition to happen, but something that would automatically happen” once a judge decides a PPO is warranted, said House Speaker Pro Tem Laurie Pohutsky, a Livonia Democrat and a domestic abuse survivor.
But the proposal could face legal challenges. A similar federal law banning those subject to domestic violence restraining orders from owning guns is now before the U.S. Supreme Court, after opponents argued it violated the Second Amendment. The federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in Texas ruled that law unconstitutional in February, arguing the ban was “an outlier that our ancestors would have never accepted.”
Rep. Phil Green, R-Millington, said the proposal is “redundant” since similar federal laws are already in place. The state should focus instead on enforcing existing laws, investing in education and addressing substance abuse to curb gun violence, he said.
“If somebody is intent on doing wrong, then they are going to do wrong regardless,” Green said in a Tuesday interview.
“I don't think passing a law is the panacea.”
More than 70,000 people reported being the victim of domestic violence in Michigan in 2021, including more than 50,000 females and almost 20,000 males, according to data from Michigan State Police. A total of 88 victims died.
That year, firearms were used in roughly 23 percent of the cases in which the object used as a weapon was known.
Domestic violence victims are five times more likely to die when their abusers have access to guns, according to a 2020 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. More than half of all intimate partner homicides nationwide are committed with a firearm, according to Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, citing a study analyzing deaths across the U.S. between 1976 and 2015.
States that have implemented restrictions on domestic abusers subject to restraining orders have seen declined rates of intimate partner homicides, according to four studies reviewed by April Zeoli, researcher of gun policies at the University of Michigan.
The proposed bills come as Michigan Democrats contemplate a new round of gun safety measures when the Legislature returns from break in September. Democrats, who gained legislative majority in the House and Senate in January for the first time in 40 years, swiftly passed measures earlier this year to require universal background checks on gun sales, mandate safe storage of firearms and allow judges to authorize petitions to temporarily take away someone’s guns if that person is deemed to be dangerous to themselves or others.
Chang: Bill will ‘mirror’ federal language
Thirty-three states and Washington, D.C., have laws prohibiting people convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors from owning guns, according to the Giffords Law Center. Michigan is not one of them, relying instead on similar federal protections.
Under the federal law, misdemeanor domestic violence includes any threats or attempts of physical force by a current or former spouse, parent, guardian, current or former dating partner, someone with whom the victim shares a child, and a cohabitant serving as parent, spouse or guardian.
Chang, the senator sponsoring the Michigan bill, told Bridge her legislation would mirror the federal language instead of expanding it.
But the federal definition is “narrow” and does not capture all the people who are capable of committing domestic violence, said Allison Anderman, senior counsel and director of local policy with the Giffords center.
For example, dating partners only refer to those who “have or have recently had a continuing serious relationship of a romantic or intimate nature,” according to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Anderman said that leaves out casual dating relationships.
“If I go out on a date two or three times, and then this person starts stalking me or beating, attempting to harm me, that probably would not qualify as a dating relationship,” she said.
A different section of the federal law also prohibits those subject to a domestic violence restraining order from owning guns, but only after they have received a full hearing and are proven to pose a threat to their intimate partner or a child.
In Michigan, judges are authorized — not required — to ban access to firearms for people under emergency restraining orders, instead of waiting for a full hearing. But still, the burden of proof is on victims to show their abusers are dangerous enough, said Heath Lowry, staff attorney with the advocacy group Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence.
“(It) can be quite traumatic for someone that has gone through domestic violence, still experiencing the impacts of that experience,” he said. “This (proposed legislation) takes the onus away from the survivor.”
Advocates call for stronger enforcement
But restricting domestic violence offenders’ access to guns requires strong gun relinquishment rules that Michigan does not yet have, Anderman said.
Nineteen states explicitly require people subject to restraining orders to surrender their firearms, with nine requiring proof of compliance, according to a Giffords’ list. Michigan requires neither.
“There's no enforcement mechanism,” said Lowry of the anti-domestic violence coalition.
“There's no requirement to turn the firearms into anyone or for anyone to go check and make sure that this provision is being followed.”
The red flag law in Michigan, which won’t take effect until next year, establishes a procedure for the relinquishment of firearms. A judge must include a requirement to surrender any firearms in the extreme risk protection order, and law enforcement officials must make a “good faith effort” to decide if the person subject to the order has not surrendered all firearms.
Anderman said the Giffords Law Center is working with Michigan lawmakers to establish a relinquishment law that specifies “how anyone who is subjected to a domestic violence prohibition would relinquish their firearms.”
But even in states with some of the strictest gun laws, enforcement often falls short.
The state of California, for example, requires those subject to a restraining order to turn in their firearms within 24 hours of being served. But the state was struggling to clear the backlog in its database of those barred from having firearms, and was not aware of those who possessed unregistered firearms, CalMatters reported in 2021.
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