A gap in Iowa gun laws leaves domestic violence offenders responsible for turning over their own weapons after a court order.
Even though Iowa law prohibits someone with a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence conviction or a no-contact order — that includes an order to turn over weapons — against them from possessing a firearm, the law doesn’t lay out a specific process for law enforcement or court officials to verify offenders have complied.
Because of this, victims of domestic violence often rely on an advocate to follow up with law enforcement to get weapons out of an offender's reach when violence continues to escalate.
First Assistant Linn County Attorney Nick Maybanks said relying on offenders to relinquish their weapons is a concern for prosecutors, as an offender may still be upset or enraged about the incident that led to his or her arrest when they leave jail.
“When it comes to gun violence, it’s not just prosecutors, judges or police officers that prefer being proactive instead of reactionary, the public wants us to be proactive as well,” Maybanks said. “What makes this situation challenging is that we have the legal authority to order this requirement, but no reasonable manner in which to proactively enforce it and as a result, we have to resort to relying upon the very person who might be on the brink of resorting to gun violence.”
At least 244 people have been killed in domestic violence homicides in Iowa since 1995, according to the most recent data collected by the Crime Victim Assistance Division of the Iowa Attorney General’s office.
More than half of those homicides — about 55 percent — were committed with a gun. The report does not explicitly state how many offenders in those cases had a history of domestic violence.
Three months into 2014, two women and one bystander have been killed with guns by a current or former partner in Cedar Rapids.
Though neither case involved an offender with a criminal history of domestic abuse, domestic violence advocates contend that violence between current and former partners can be prevented with early intervention, stronger laws and the allocation of more resources to the programs that help domestic violence victims.
If a person is charged with a crime of domestic abuse, the court shall issue a no-contact order that tells the defendant he or she is not allowed to possess firearms, offensive weapons and ammunition.
But there is no law requiring any agency to verify that the court order has been followed, or requiring the defendant to provide proof to the court that they have complied.
Even though Iowa code does not lay out any guidance as to how such an order is to be executed, offenders typically are directed to turn any weapons over by the following day to the police department, sheriff's office or other "qualified person" who meets the requirements to possess a weapon under Iowa law.
But existing law and court orders do not direct either law enforcement agency to go to a residence and seize them and there is no system or court form that asks offenders whether they have weapons after they’ve been arrested.
Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner said following up with such offenders could be a challenge because it’s difficult to know whether an offender has guns, let alone where they keep them.
"We never know if there are weapons to begin with because the person may not have any weapons," Gardner said. "We don't know if they took them to the police department, if they gave them to relatives, if they sold them - the only thing we know is if they bring them here" to the sheriff's office.
It’s important to note that weapons can, and sometimes are, seized during other points of law enforcement’s involvement in a domestic incident, including when an officer responds to an incident — if there is probable cause — and if an offender who is prohibited from possessing a weapon has contact with law enforcement later, and is found to possess a firearm illegally. That person would face a class D felony charge.
But Kristie Fortmann-Doser, executive director of the Domestic Violence Intervention Program based in Iowa City, said weapons aren’t always seized the first time law enforcement has contact with subjects in a domestic incident.
Because of this, victims of domestic violence often turn to an advocate — a person who works with victims to help them find safety and pursue legal action — to follow up with law enforcement to get firearms out of an offender’s reach when the violence is escalating.
"The biggest concern I have is that it's not a protocol for law enforcement to check for weapons and to seize them," Fortmann-Doser said. "It's not something that law enforcement initiates, typically someone has to contact law enforcement and ask them."
Though some law enforcement agencies regularly check for or ask about weapons in domestic violence incidents, the process varies between police departments sheriff's offices and incidents.
Having one uniform practice, Fortmann-Doser said, could prevent after-the-fact footwork for advocates and officers.
But Gardner said it's not that simple, and that existing laws and court orders do not allow such procedure.
"Even if such a standard legally existed, it would be nearly impossible to implement," Gardner said in an email. "We would literally have to search the entire residence, and most safety-minded gun owners hide their weapons ... including placing them in gun safes. Would we be expected to break into the gun safe if the defendant refused to allow us access? Who pays for the damage?"
Maybanks said the system could benefit from providing a method in which police officers can receive the information they need to consistently and effectively enforce orders to turn over weapons.
“First and foremost though, we need a reliable manner in which to ensure suspects actually possess firearms so we know whether an order needs to be enforced,” Maybanks said. “That may require additional legislative action and such action would strike at the heart of the ongoing battle between gun right advocates and gun control proponents.”
He said law enforcement departments also need enough manpower and resources so that they have the ability to follow up on such orders. But to follow up on each domestic abuse no-contact order issued, he said they would have to ask taxpayers to provide more funding for either more officers on the streets or grants for special projects.
Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness said that making sure it is policy for all law enforcement agencies to be more diligent about checking for weapons in domestic violence calls and documenting what they heard and found — such as whether a person has weapons, or where those weapons are kept — would be especially helpful. That way, there would be a record regarding weapons from past arrests if the offender moved or was found in a new jurisdiction.
Both Maybanks and Lyness said that having a consistent, state-wide policy for following up on offenders who are ordered to turn over weapons would be helpful, but such a requirement might touch on Second and Fourth Amendment liberty concerns.
Jeff Burkett, president of the Iowa Firearms Coalition, said that the coalition's stance is that unless someone has been found guilty of a crime severe enough to constitute loss of their second amendment rights, they shouldn't be required to give information to the government about what firearms they own.
Burkett added that the coalition does not support violence of any kind with or without firearms and that training courses specifically address the fact that, if you’re carrying a weapon, you need to be even more level-headed than the average person.
“A lot of it is understanding things as simple as road rage. If you are a permit holder, you have to be a step above the people around you because you are carrying a weapon,” Burkett said. “So, for the most part, we find our permit holders in Iowa are responding to that training and aren’t involved in these types of activities.”
When it comes to domestic violence deaths, Burkett said it's not necessarily a gun issue, but a mental health concern that needs to be addressed.
“What we’re seeing is almost negligence on the part of our public health system’s ability to deal with people who have mental health issues," Burkett said. "So people are falling through the cracks and now the law enforcement system has to pick up the pieces.”
In the legislature
Even though state and federal laws have been created with the intention of keeping weapons out of the hands of those with a history of domestic abuse, state leaders in domestic violence services say there is room to strengthen Iowa’s laws.
Iowa law relating to domestic violence requires a person accused of domestic assault be arrested if there is probable cause, held without bond until seeing a judge or magistrate, issued a no contact order, serve jail time and complete a mandatory batterer’s program if convicted.
But those protections only are offered to a person who is married, co-habitates with the accused or shares a child with the accused. The protections leave out people in dating relationships.
That means the only option available to a person in a physically abusive dating relationship is a regular assault charge.
“We arbitrarily cut a line for women that are married or have lived with their partner or share a child in common, but women who are dating aren’t afforded those same protections and are at just as much risk,” said Laurie Schipper, executive director of the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “Many women who were killed in Iowa were in dating relationships and were killed with weapons.”
Schipper said the coalition is working with legislators to move a bipartisan bill, Senate File 359, to the governor’s office. The bill would extend domestic abuse assault protections to people involved in an intimate relationship.
Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, one of the bill's sponsors, said he doesn’t think the bill is going to move in the house this year, but sponsors are still pushing for it.
Schipper said that a three-pronged approach — including strong laws that are implemented, more access to victim services, and adequate resources to conduct widespread prevention efforts around the state — would help to minimize domestic violence incidents in Iowa.
Money for community-based crisis services for victims of domestic violence in Iowa has decreased significantly over the last 10 years, which has led to victim service areas being re-structured to better provide services to all communities with fewer dollars.
"I think domestic violence homicides are preventable, we just need to be able to throw enough resources in that direction, and to date, we haven't (as a society) been willing to do that," Schipper said, adding they're also seeking more appropriations to support domestic violence services.
Schipper said it's important for people, at all levels, to get serious about prosecuting abuse cases when the abuse is in its earliest stages.
"Those early interventions — where there is just a slap and he leaves a red mark on her hand, or hair is pulled — I think a lot of people, in terms of policy, think it's too harsh for (the alleged offender) to be taken into custody and do jail time and be assigned to a batterers group," Schipper said.
"What I do know is that intervention can prevent this from escalating over time."
Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman said that, in light of recent incidents, he hoped different groups can work together to increase domestic violence awareness, examine procedures and minimize domestic violence incidents.
“You can’t place the blame with one system,” Jerman said. “I don’t think there’s a single answer. But collectively — with the criminal justice system, with social services networks, mental health and other agencies that can provide outreach and assistance — maybe we can have a positive effect in preventing or reducing these occurrences.”