Courtney Weaver was 23 with a rising career as a blues singer in Northern California when her estranged boyfriend shot her in the face and arm. Over the next six years, between trauma therapy and surgeries, she found her role as an advocate against domestic abuse.
“It felt very personal that he was trying to make my voice go away,” said Weaver, who now lives in Seattle.
Several years ago, she made her debut in Olympia, Wash., to testify in support of House Bill 1840, a proposal to require domestic-violence offenders with protective orders against them to surrender their guns. Lawmakers passed the measure in 2014, amid heavy momentum nationwide to reduce gun violence of all kinds.
But despite the law change, authorities say too many abusers still have access to weapons, posing huge risks to victims and raising a need for better enforcement of the law.
“We have way too many people getting murdered and seriously hurt by perpetrators that have access to firearms,” said advocate Kelli Hegsted, of Olympia, who had a protection order against her former husband in 2004 when he was arrested en route to her home with a shotgun. “I was one of the lucky ones.”
According to the Washington Coalition Against Domestic Violence, from 2013 to 2014, the most recent data available, nearly 55 percent of perpetrators who committed fatal shootings were previously prohibited by law from owning firearms. Abusers use guns more than all other weapons combined, the coalition reports.
Federal law prohibits abusers subject to certain protective orders from buying or owning weapons, though some states like Washington have passed their own version of the requirement. Now authorities statewide are reviewing how they treat such cases to improve compliance, aiming to ensure offenders surrender their firearms when necessary.
“Today, people are falling through the gaps,” said King County Board of Health Chair Rod Dembowski, referring to the fatal shooting of a 27-year-old woman earlier this year by her estranged boyfriend. The woman had submitted a petition for a restraining order against the man the day before he killed her.
In a three-month sample of King County cases last year (where Seattle is located), 81 of 93 people who were ordered to answer to the court if they had concealed-pistol licenses or weapons did not submit the required paperwork with their answers, according to data obtained through the Public Records Act.
And of the dozen who complied, the majority reported they had no licenses or weapons, a Seattle Times analysis shows.
“A respondent under the law is required to state whether he has a weapon. When he does that, what is the way that information is verified? That has a layer of complexity,” said retired Municipal Court Judge Anne Levinson, who works on the issue. “Different states handle that in different ways.”
The protective orders may arise from criminal or civil cases, and both types of cases provide authorities with different tools to enforce the firearm law.
King County officials earlier this year approved a measure that aims to improve coordination among courts, law-enforcement agencies and prosecutors to raise compliance with the law there. The more densely populated an area, the more complex the issue, authorities said. For instance, when multiple police departments in an area have varied approaches, there’s more room for offenders to fall through the system’s cracks.
Other jurisdictions across Washington state, such as in Pierce and Spokane counties, are analyzing their practices, too.
Before the law change, Washington gained attention on the issue after The New York Times published a story in 2013 that highlighted the battle between advocates for gun rights and victims of domestic violence. The story featured Stephanie Holten of Spokane, Wash., who had a temporary order against her former husband before he threatened her with a gun.
“The judge’s order prohibited Mr. Holten from going within two blocks of his former wife’s home and imposed a number of other restrictions. What it did not require him to do was surrender his guns,” the March 17 story reported.
Advocates for domestic violence had pushed for more than a decade for the passage of measures similar to House Bill 1840 before it became law in 2014. Lawmakers approved the proposal during debates nationwide on reducing general gun violence in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting in Connecticut.
“When the law was passed, there was a lot of energy for task forces to work on this program,” said David Martin, who chairs the domestic-violence unit in the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. But the law did not outline protocols for enforcement, he said.
Now advocates nationwide for victims of domestic violence are pushing jurisdictions to improve how they identify who has firearms in such cases and how those people are notified to surrender. Advocates also are looking at how authorities confiscate the guns or return them, once a protective order expires. Agencies should also have protocols in place for storing the weapons, advocates say, and for collecting data at each step.
Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, helps leaders across the country develop research-based practices for preventing gun violence. He said it’ll take many years for this type of reform.
“King County is a complicated jurisdiction with a lot of commitment to get this done right,” he added.
For several legislative sessions, Weaver testified on the proposal to require offenders with protective orders against them to relinquish their weapons, sharing intimate details of the shooting that followed months of controlling behavior by her former boyfriend.
“Pop, pop — and then I heard two more, and I crouched down and heard a final one,” Weaver recalled of the gunshots, in an interview. “He just looked at me with this blank look on his face, like there was no remorse or anything.”
He was sentenced to prison for more than a decade for assault with a firearm, among other things, court records show.
The experience opened Weaver’s eyes to how the criminal and judicial systems treat domestic-violence victims, she said, and the need for the firearm-removal law. When people who already harm their partners have access to guns, she says, the outcomes are horrific.
Now, as an advocate, she volunteers for the Washington coalition group, gathering data on intimate-partner shootings across the state. She also writes and performs songs with other artists about dealing with domestic abuse. A full album is due this summer.
“When I was going through multiple jaw surgeries, and getting surgery on my tongue, and dental reconstruction, I couldn’t sing, and so writing on my computer was, like, the one way I could process what had happened and control the narrative,” Weaver said.
“Being a vocalist and having my jaw wired shut,” she added, “it was all very symbolic and ironic that everyone was trying to shut me up.”
Signs of abuse by your intimate partner
—Monitors what you’re doing all the time
—Unfairly accuses you of being unfaithful all the time
—Prevents or discourages you from seeing friends or family
—Prevents or discourages you from going to work or school
—Gets very angry during and after drinking alcohol or using drugs
—Controls how you spend your money
—Controls your use of needed medicines
—Decides things for you that you should be allowed to decide (like what to wear or eat)
—Humiliates you in front of others
—Destroys your property or things you care about
—Threatens to hurt you, the children, or pets
—Hurts you (by hitting, beating, pushing, shoving, punching, slapping, kicking or biting)
—Uses (or threatens to use) a weapon against you
—Forces you to have sex against your will
—Controls your birth control or insists that you get pregnant
—Blames you for his or her violent outbursts
—Threatens to harm himself or herself when upset with you
—Says things like, “If I can’t have you then no one can.”
©2016 The Seattle Times