by Kelly O’Connor, MCEDV Training Institute Director
In a country and a state where the sheer number of firearms boggles the mind, taking a pragmatic approach to reducing the risk for gun violence – and in particular, the risk for domestic violence homicide and serious injury – is paramount. Since the guns themselves are not going away anytime soon, the question of access to – or possession of – firearms is a critical one.
The Coalition, and indeed the state of Maine and the United States government, agree that people who commit domestic abuse and violence crimes should be prohibited from possessing firearms. These are people who pose a significant threat to the health, safety, and wellbeing of those they abuse – and often bystanders and community members, too. Our laws, both state and federal, acknowledge this threat.
In just the last two decades alone, 62% of all intimate partner violence homicides in Maine were committed with a firearm. And countless other Mainers who were not murdered have been and continue to be terrorized by their abusive partners’ threatening use of firearms. Some engage in overt threats of violence – such as shoving the barrel of a gun against their victims’ temple and pulling the trigger only for the chamber to be empty – without the victim knowing that it was. Still others use more subtle – but no less sinister – tactics: for example, placing bullets on the kitchen counter for their victim to see when they wake up in the morning, accompanied by a note that reads: “I’ll see you tonight.” These aren’t fabricated threats – these are real experiences that victim-survivors have described to me that happened to them. Talk with any of Maine’s domestic violence advocates, and they will be able to recall similar stories shared by survivors of abusive people using firearms to terrorize them.
The people – almost always men – behaving in this way are dangerous. And they are more dangerous when they can easily access and possess guns. While we do have laws on the books that acknowledge this danger, the Maine Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel (DAHRP) has consistently noted continuing gaps in both the enforcement of civil firearms relinquishment orders as well as enforcement of laws that prohibit dangerous individuals or people known to be abusive to their partner from owning or possessing firearms. In other words, just having the law in place isn’t enough; we need to turn our attention to how those laws are being implemented and enforced.
Slow But Steady Progress
Risk reduction. Pragmatism. This is the sometimes maddeningly slow, but unquestioningly crucial approach MCEDV is taking to address the question of who gets access to the guns. In the Fall of 2019, and early winter 2020, the Maine Commission on Domestic and Sexual Abuse hosted two panels of experts to talk about a range of firearms relinquishment issues, including the gaps noted by the DAHRP. Following the two panels, the Commission established a list of priority issues and formed the Firearms Relinquishment Action Committee, which I have had the privilege to chair since the Fall of 2020. The Action Committee has met regularly for over three years, steadily working our way through the priority issues. In that time, we’ve accomplished a lot:
- Developing and supporting implementation of a new protocol for law enforcement service of protection from abuse orders that focuses on the electronic transmission of the court order. This is a more effective, and thus more victim-centered protocol, replacing an old process that relied on the physical transportation of paper court documents to the serving law enforcement agency by the plaintiff or through the mail by the court.
- Developing and supporting implementation of a new standardized information sharing and documentation process for when a defendant in a protection from abuse matter is required to relinquish firearms. This new process ensures that both the plaintiff and the court have clear and timely information about whether weapons have been relinquished.
- Developing additional guidance sheets for law enforcement that help address common challenges and offer best practices for successfully ensuring defendants are in compliance with their relinquishment obligations, including: requesting a search warrant in cases when there is probable cause to believe a defendant has not relinquished all firearms; avoiding pre-service notification to the defendant as a matter of course; and exercising due diligence to locate and attempt to retrieve firearms from third parties by consent in those cases in which a defendant has already transferred the firearms to the third party prior to actual notice of the order.
Where We Go From Here
While we’ve been busy, the work is far from over. As with the launch of any new protocol or process, thoughtful implementation is key. We’ve made recommendations to representatives in Maine’s law enforcement community that the Maine Chiefs of Police Association (MECOPA) Domestic Violence Model Policy be updated to reflect the work done by the Firearms Relinquishment Action Committee to best operationalize the guidance and ensure its longevity.
Additionally, we will be working with the Maine Criminal Justice Academy to plan for additional statewide training for Maine’s law enforcement, and a small group including myself, Lt. Michael Johnston from the Maine State Police, Caroline Jova from the Maine Judicial Branch, and MCEDV’s Andrea Mancuso, continue to offer ongoing support and guidance to all key systems and community partners.
Finally, some law enforcement agencies have identified lack of capacity to store firearms retrieved pursuant to a civil protection order weapons relinquishment requirement as a challenge to the court ordering weapons to be relinquished to and stored by law enforcement. In an effort to be responsive to these concerns, the Abuse Commission recently released a survey to collect detailed information from every Maine law enforcement agency to better understand the scale and scope of this capacity challenge in order to identify solutions and leverage newly available financial resources to begin to address it. We will continue to collect this information throughout this summer and have plans to analyze the data in the fall to determine next steps.
Taking a thoughtful, pragmatic approach to addressing the issue of gun safety is labor intensive. Sometimes it is hard to see the progress when you are in the weeds of the details – hundreds of hours of meetings, emails, phone calls, research, writing, revising, and revising again. But as I step back and consider all of this effort, it is indeed progress that I see moving forward. I see more victims knowing what happened to the guns and being able to better plan for their safety because of that knowledge – nearly 500 of them in the first year the new protocol has been in place. I see genuine buy-in from law enforcement leadership in Maine to get this right. I see fewer abusive people being able to terrorize victims with guns. I see the risk of domestic violence homicide reducing.
 This process included either the revision of old or development of new court forms: PA-024 Notice of Relinquishment of Weapons to be Completed by Law Enforcement; PA-025 Notice of Weapons Relinquishment to be Completed by Defendant; and PA-031 Information Regarding Notice of Firearms Relinquishment