APPLETON — A bill circulated in Madison this week adds an enforcement element to firearm surrenders and has the support of Fox Valley law enforcement and domestic abuse advocates.
Door County Republican Garey Bies is gathering sponsors for the bill that calls for courts to directly ask about firearm ownership and verify guns are turned over to sheriffs or a qualified third party within 48 hours after a restraining order is issued. A vast majority of Wisconsin counties, 70 percent, rely on the honor system for the surrender.
A nearly identical bill failed in 2010 after introduction by Rep. Penny Bernard Schaber, D-Appleton. The effort to reintroduce the bill has been elevated after a series of Wisconsin spousal shootings in which victims had just months earlier obtained restraining orders. It was also the subject of a February report by the Gannett Wisconsin Media Investigative Team.
“I’m hopeful that attitudes have changed, but am not entirely confident,” Bernard Schaber, now a cosponsor, said. “The National Rifle Association will say this is a bad thing and it’s our job to tell them no it’s not and tell them why.”
The previous effort received opposition from the National Rifle Association, Wisconsin Firearm Owners and Wisconsin Gun Owners. A state NRA lobbyist was unavailable for comment Wednesday.
As of Wednesday, the bill had eight cosponsors in both the state Assembly and Senate, but did not have a companion bill in the Senate.
Efforts to follow-up with protection order subjects have been successful in the Fox Valley.
In 2011, the state’s Office of Justice Assistance spent $150,000 on a study in Outagamie, Winnebago, Sauk and Waushara counties to examine new ways of enforcing the law.
Though a court commissioner orders the surrender of weapons, the process of locating and making sure the weapon is turned over to the sheriff or responsible third party had been lacking. Results from the study were clear: Active enforcement meant guns were no longer in the hands of violent abusers, and the extra step was accomplished without extra labor costs.
During the yearlong study in Outagamie County, 66 guns were ordered to be turned over as a result of 109 protection orders. In Winnebago County, 74 guns were ordered surrendered from 79 protection orders in 15 months.
Last year, Outagamie County issued 82 protection orders with firearm surrender requirements.
Appleton Police Chief Pete Helein rarely wades into law enforcement politics, but has been outspoken in his support for the measure that is already followed in the Fox Valley.
“When guns are in homes where domestic violence is occurring there is a direct correlation with the potential for a fatality of victims or our officers,” Helein said. “Since the county was a test site for the procedures we saw firsthand how it can help keep guns out of the hands of those who would act violently.”
Wendy Gehl, a legal advocate for Harbor House Domestic Abuse Program, said the bill simply enforces a law that’s already on the books.
“It’s one thing to listen to a court order about guns and we’ve found it’s quite another to physically relinquish that gun,” Gehl said. “This isn’t about taking away rights or stopping someone from hunting, this is about people that have already lost their firearm privileges because of their violent behavior.”
The bill also has the backing of End Abuse Wisconsin, a group that tracks domestic abuse violence. Its research suggests that guns were used in nearly half of all domestic abuse homicides for the last decade, more than any other weapon or method of killing.
Nationwide, domestic-related assaults involving firearms are 12 times more likely to result in deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“This accountability is an important message to victim and perpetrator that victim safety is taken seriously,” said Tony Gibart, policy coordinator for End Abuse Wisconsin. “The gun lobby says it doesn’t want new restrictions in favor of enforcing the ones we have, and that’s what this bill does. Opposition would seem hypocritical.”
— Nick Penzenstadler: 920-996-7226, or firstname.lastname@example.org ; on Twitter @npenzenstadler