PARKERSBURG - Local domestic violence victim advocates are behind proposed federal legislation that attempts to close some loopholes in the current federal law and could provide victims with more protection.
Although current federal law generally prohibits gun possession/ownership by domestic abusers, it usually only applies to certain types of relationships and prevents abusers from purchasing or possessing a firearm only after a court issues a permanent restraining order.
Wood County Prosecutor Jason Wharton said West Virginia state code provisions already prohibit an offender from possessing firearms and ammunition during the period when an emergency protection order is in effect.
The proposed federal bill, the Lori Jackson Domestic Violence Survivor Protection Act, would expand the current federal law to prevent an individual subject to a temporary restraining order from purchasing or possessing a firearm for the duration of the order.
According to proponents of the bill the current federal law exposes victims, like the bill's namesake, Lori Jackson when they are in the most danger; when the abuser first learns the victim has left and only a temporary order is in place.
In addition the federal definition of "intimate partner" includes only spouses, former spouses, people with a child in common and co-habitants. Proponents point out many victims were never married, do not live with their abuser and have no children. West Virginia's definition includes a dating partner relationship and names family members that are also part of the definition.
Emily Larkins, executive director of the Family Crisis Intervention Center said the shelter supports any expansion of the federal law that would provide further protection for victims.
"It's a fact that communities don't want to talk about domestic violence, people don't want to believe it happens; unfortunately it is when people's lives are taken that it brings attention. Unfortunately Lori Jackson lost her life, but it might mean other victims will be protected in the future if the legislation passes," Larkins said.
Larkins said there are always practical issues to be addressed including enforcement.
"With West Virginia being a strong state for hunting, having guns is obviously an issue. Many people do have firearms, maybe more than a lot of other states. But the problem is many times abusers won't relinquish their weapons to law enforcement, they may give them to friends or family and still have access to them. Those other individuals may not be aware of the order or what the restrictions are, if you don't work in this field, or have never gotten a protection order, they probably wouldn't know about them," Larkins said.
"The police officers do the best they can, but the abuser may tell them the guns aren't on the premises, or they don't have any guns, and they have been removed from the residence so the officers are unable to find them," she said. "On the other side of the coin, unfortunately there are also a lot of other weapons besides guns that can be used against victims," she said.
Larkins agreed the time right after the temporary order is issued can be a heightened occasion for escalated abuse.
Statistics show the most violent time is when the victim tries to leave. So when the victim goes to court to seek that temporary protection order then the abuser finds out when law enforcement comes to serve it that could potentially be a trigger point for escalated violence, she said. "That could be the event that could raise the level of violence."
"Of course every situation is different, but that is a very volatile period when the victim cuts the ties and they don't know what their abuser is doing. A relationship might not have been at that point yet - it may have been emotional and verbal abuse up to that point," Larkins said.
The Lori Jackson Domestic Violence Survivor Protection Act was the subject of a recent debate in the U.S. Senate. The bill was named after a Connecticut resident who was shot and killed by her husband after obtaining a temporary restraining order against him. U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., offered the legislation as an amendment to the Bipartisan Sportsmen's Act of 2014, which is currently being debated on the floor of the United States Senate.
At the time the legislation was introduced, Blumenthal and Murphy issued a statement that said "At a time when avoidable gun violence has become an everyday occurrence, and Congress has failed to act to keep Americans safe, it is unconscionable to consider the sportsmen's bill without also considering measures to reduce gun violence. For this reason, we're offering the Lori Jackson Domestic Violence Survivor Protection Act as an amendment to the sportsmen's bill. When domestic abusers are most dangerous - at the height of their rage current law is weakest in protecting victims like Lori Jackson from gun violence. Closing this gaping loophole will save lives when temporary restraining orders leave domestic abuse victims most vulnerable to violent partners with guns. The Lori Jackson Domestic Violence Survivor Act would prevent the purchase and possession of a firearm by someone subject to a temporary restraining order, and expand federal law to protect individuals who have been victims of abuse by dating partners. The link between domestic violence and guns is a deadly one."
According to Stacey Radnor, with Everytown for Gun Safety, in an average month 48 women in the U.S. are shot to death by intimate partners. American women are 11 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than women in other developed countries.
The local Family Crisis Intervention Center offers a 24-hour hotline at 1-304-428-2333 to get support and information and serves Wood, Wirt, Tyler, Roane, Ritchie, Pleasants. Jackson and Calhoun. Services include shelter, a 24-hour hotline, counseling, legal advocacy, parenting education, information and referral to appropriate community resources, a family visitation center, transitional housing and county outreach programs.