Names are changed but the situations are real: Elizabeth from Magnolia, Marguerite in Queen Anne, and Shaun in Pioneer Square have something in common. They are all victims of domestic violence. A partner, a wife, a husband — people of all ages and incomes in our community are impacted by intimate partner violence.
Tragedies like these are experienced nationwide. On average, in the U.S., nearly 20 people per minute are victims of physical abuse by an intimate partner.
According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, about 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men experience severe physical abuse by an intimate partner during their lifetime. Further, when a firearm is present, violence in the home is five times more likely to end in a homicide.
Evidence shows when domestic violence perpetrators have access to firearms, those who are closest are in increased danger. A March 2017 study by Everytown For Gun Violence, found that over the last seven years, 54 percent of mass shooting cases involved domestic or family violence. Over 40 percent of these fatalities were children.
Thankfully, we have new tools to keep our families safer from gun violence.
Three years ago, our legislators passed and Governor Inslee signed HB 1840 into law. The bill mandates the surrender of a firearm when a court issues a protective order. The objective of this bill was to protect household members from repeated domestic violence. According to the same Everytown study, 34% of the mass shootings nationwide involved a shooter who was prohibited from possessing a firearm. Consider that statistic for another moment: over 1/3 of mass shootings are conducted by an individual who is legally prohibited from having a gun
Additionally, this past November, voters statewide overwhelmingly approved Initiative 1491 that allows family members and law enforcement officers to petition courts for the removal of firearms from those who pose a risk of harm to themselves or others.
Neither HB 1840 nor I-1491 included funding to implement and, as a result, the laws were not being enforced.
After an audit of the firearm surrender petitions filed in the King County Protection Order Program in Seattle, I learned that out of the 2,650 surrender petitions ordered in recent years, only 53 firearms were surrendered . Based on the average firearm ownership rate in Seattle, that’s an abysmal compliance rate of merely 8%.
Worse, according to the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, over half of the perpetrators involved in domestic violence homicides in Washington State had previously been ordered by courts to surrender firearms, yet no one retrieved them and guns remained in the home.
Our King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg brought this problem to my attention last year. He explained that our courts and other law enforcement agencies statewide did not have proper systems in place to implement a firearm surrender program nor the personnel dedicated to do it.
When developing the 2017-2018 City Budget last fall, I championed an effort to add money to develop a firearm surrender program in Seattle, both to establish proper protocols for surrender as well as to identify gaps in the system between arrest, conviction and gun surrender. With thanks to City Attorney Pete Holmes and Assistant City Attorney Chris Anderson, our City’s firearm surrender protocols are no
w drafted and implemented. These new protocols are working. Impressively.
On March 29, 2017, the City Attorney’s office utilized the new firearm surrender program for the first time. In a joint City-County effort, attorneys from the City Attorney’s Office and King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office reviewed the domestic violence calendar docket and contacted victims and employers to see if the defendants were telling the truth about whether guns were in the home.
Where evidence supported the victim’s claims that guns were still accessible to the perpetrator, the attorneys obtained search warrants. In just one week, the Seattle Police Department and King County Sheriff’s Office recovered eleven guns from the homes of people who were not legally allowed to own a firearm and had denied ownership.
At this rate, we will see 10 times the number of guns recovered over the next twelve months as we saw in all of 2016.
We are now working to ramp up the program. With thanks to our budget chair Councilmember Tim Burgess, we identified funds to create two new dedicated mid-year positions, which are slated to be approved in this quarter’s supplemental budget vote this coming Monday. If the budget is approved, we will hire a dedicated Court Coordinator to work with our Municipal, District, and Superior Courts. The new Coordinator will review domestic violence protection orders and crosscheck firearm and criminal history databases; the Coordinator and co-workers will interview victims and families to determine if perpetrators retained firearms. This information will be shared with the courts and the police.
We will also hire a prosecutor dedicated to high-risk cases. This attorney will work with the Court Coordinator to facilitate the surrender of firearms and file criminal charges against non-compliant parties.
This firearm surrender program has been carefully crafted to comply with constitutional rights of gun owners. If the perpetrators comply with court conditions, their guns may be returned.
The project and protocols are critical to implement the policies voters have demanded. Removing firearms from convicted abusers or from people whose families worry are likely to repeat their history of violence is something very tangible that we have legal authority to do.
Other cities have told me they are looking to Seattle for leadership. We are making these protocols available to cities and law enforcement agencies statewide through our Association of Washington Cities and other statewide organizations. Taking these important strides can protect our community, you, and your loved ones.