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At the point of a gun

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As I stated last month, despite state gun laws that help protect victims of domestic violence, last year, Ron Rawlinson of Grover Beach murdered Dana Neece with a 9 mm handgun.

Though California has made strides in trying to protect victims of domestic violence, legal and procedural gaps continue to put victims at mortal risk. We must close the gaps and provide victim advocates through SLO County domestic violence service programs in the name of Dana Neece and fellow residents who seek protection from RISE and Stand Strong.

Imagine you're a victim. You have to navigate a legal labyrinth, but you probably don't know that criminal and civil courts have different laws. I didn't.

Beth Raub, assistant director of the District Attorney's Victim Assistance Center, and Kirsten Rambo, executive director of Stand Strong, showed me there were critical differences in the procedures of criminal court verses civil court.

All reported assaults are adjudicated in criminal court. If a person—think of a woman you may know who's been in this dire situation—fears for her life but no violent incident has been reported, she must go to civil court to get protection.

In criminal court, persons charged or convicted of assault, battery, or stalking, are not supposed to be able to purchase or possess firearms. In civil court, the same goes for individuals who are subject to domestic violence restraining or protective orders.

Back in criminal court, it's up to the judge and probation officers to ensure that a search is conducted to determine if the subject of the order has a firearm.

You got that? The pressure is almost always on the victim not the abuser, because in civil court, a restraining or protective order must be triggered by the victim, and that victim must also petition the court to remove weapons held by the abuser.

Abusers must either sell or surrender firearms immediately upon request of law enforcement. To prove that they have relinquished their weapons, they must file proof from law enforcement or a gun dealer within 48 hours.

Now ask yourself: What kind of horror can take place in those 48 hours?

Let's return to criminal court. Newly effective as of Jan. 1, Proposition 63 requires convicted domestic violence offenders to provide proof that they sold or transferred their firearms. This is a very good development, but it's not good enough.

Yes, probation officers and courts must verify that the defendant has complied, and the court may issue search warrants to recover illegally retained firearms. But the new law doesn't apply to civil court.

"Prop. 63 requires courts and probation officers to ensure that guns are removed from convicted abusers, but that's not the case in family court, where the burden falls to the victim," Rambo told me.

How likely is it that—without an expert advocate at their sides—victims can negotiate their way through this mess? Right now, to take guns out of the hands of abusers, everyone involved must follow through: Courts, law enforcement, and probation officers must be proactive in removing weapons and demanding proof that guns have been surrendered.

What's more, law enforcement must be timely in entering domestic violence incidents into a database and entering the names of offenders into the gun registry, so that abusers can't purchase new weapons.

OK, you're a terrified victim. Do you know the law? And if so, are you willing to come forward to get a restraining order? To get the guns away from the abuser?

Listen, we simply have to disarm abusers more quickly and efficiently. First, clearly, we must eliminate the gun show loophole that allows individuals to access weapons even if purchasers are listed in the National Criminal Information Center database.

And the database must be airtight—and the data must be entered immediately. Devin Kelley, for instance, was able to obtain guns with which he killed 26 churchgoers in Sutherland Springs, Texas, because the Air Force neglected to report his domestic abuse convictions.

"In civil court, victims must represent themselves and ask for a weapons review hearing," Raub told me. "There's no automatic trigger, which in criminal court allows the deputy district attorney to review the case."

So, it's incumbent upon Californians to create a Proposition 63 for civil court, which would help ensure that reporting and removal of weapons is not left up to traumatized victims, who must figure out how to keep themselves and their family safe while traversing an unfamiliar court system.

Even fiscally conservative Supervisor Lynn Compton noted that "law enforcement must have the resources it needs to investigate and prosecute domestic abuse cases." As Raub, Rambo, and other professionals assert, we also need to fund victim advocacy, both in civil court and at the scene of a potential domestic violence incident.

No victim should stand alone in confronting an abuser. Δ

Amy Hewes is actively involved in grassroots political action. Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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