Victims of domestic violence are over five times more likely to be killed by their abuser if the abuser has access to a firearm. And even if a gun is never fired, just knowing that an abuser has access to one causes domestic violence survivors to fear harm. That’s why the Washington Legislature unanimously passed a 2014 law to prohibit gun possession by abusers who are subject to domestic violence protection orders that meet specific requirements.
But tragically, abusers—and courts—don’t always follow that law.
When Cassie obtained a domestic violence protection order against her husband Michael, the court required him to surrender all of his firearms. In her petition for the order, Cassie reported that her husband had threatened before to kill her, adding, “any time Michael threatens to kill me, he says he will shoot me.”
Cassie gave the court a detailed list of 34 guns that Michael had previously stored in an armory. Michael claimed that all of these guns had been surrendered to law enforcement, except for one that he claimed another person owned. However, he only produced receipts showing that he had surrendered 32 of the guns—meaning that he failed to account for at least one gun on the list. Cassie pointed out this discrepancy to the court. Nonetheless the court concluded that he had complied with the law, saying that he had made “substantial efforts to turn in the guns.”
Cassie is appealing the court’s decision, and we are supporting her. There is no gray area when it comes to complying with this important law. As we argue in our brief, allowing an abuser to keep even one gun renders the law meaningless.
What happened to Cassie isn’t a unique occurrence. Too often, abusers are not being held accountable when they fail to comply with orders to surrender their guns. According to a recent investigation, nearly half of the domestic violence abusers in King County who are ordered to surrender firearms fail to provide any evidence that they have done so.
We all know that when abusers have access to guns, domestic violence survivors and their children face enormous danger. Everyone in our legal system—including our courts—must do better to keep guns out of the hands of domestic violence abusers.
In a strong decision, the Court of Appeals ruled that the trial court was wrong to find that Michael had complied with the order to surrender his guns. The Court further clarified that the burden lies with the person ordered to surrender firearms to prove that they did so. In its decision, the Court stated that shifting the burden of proof to the person seeking safety “would be contrary to both common sense and the purpose of the surrender weapons provision.”
Thanks to Cassie’s lawyers, Adrienne McKelvey of Foster Pepper and William D. Braun, and to our allies at the Northwest Justice Project, the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the Alliance for Gun Responsibility Foundation, the Coalition Ending Gender-Based Violence, and the Seattle City Attorney’s Office for taking a stand with us.