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A ‘Dangerous’ Loophole in Maryland Law Leaves Domestic Abusers With Guns (Updated)

Auditi Guha

“Last year, I held up pictures of 11 women who had been murdered by someone who should have never had a gun because of domestic violence. Given everything that’s going on in our society, I hope we can pass this.”

UPDATE, March 1, 9:59 a.m.: Gov. Larry Hogan (R) on Wednesday announced his support for HB 1646 and SB 1036. He said he also supports legislation banning “bump stocks,” and other gun safety measures.

Maryland Democratic legislators and gun safety advocates are pushing Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to support legislation that would prevent domestic abusers from owning firearms, an effort that has fallen short in recent years.

Domestic abusers with guns make a deadly combination that disproportionately endanger women and children. Two bills up for hearings in the Maryland State Legislature aim to close a loophole in state law that stops people convicted of domestic violence from owning guns, but has no mechanism to make sure they give up their firearms.

“It’s just a matter of protecting people. While it is already illegal for them to have guns, we need to make sure that these individuals turn over their guns,” said Del. Vanessa Atterbeary (D-Howard County), who sponsored HB 1646.

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“This is a very important piece of legislation and I hope Maryland will be on the right side of history and do the right thing this time,” state Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery County), sponsor of the accompanying senate bill, SB 1036, told Rewire.

Together, the bills would require a court to inform those charged with certain domestic abuse crimes, prior to trial or pleading guilty, that they are not allowed to possess firearms. They will make sure those firearms are turned over or properly transferred.

Smith referred to a 2015 study of abusers with guns in Montgomery County, Maryland, that found only one out of 126 domestic violence offenders was told by a judge that he could no longer possess a gun, even though 22 percent of the domestic violence offenders studied (126 out of 561) became legally and permanently disqualified from possessing or purchasing firearms as a result of their criminal case.

Last week, a decorated Marine veteran and police officer in Prince George’s County, Maryland, was shot and killed while trying to protect a woman from her ex in a domestic disturbance, police said. The suspect had three open warrants for assault, a history of domestic violence, and a shotgun, according to news reports.

“We know that guns and domestic abusers are a lethal cocktail,” Kathleen Matthews, chairperson of the Maryland Democratic Party, said in an email. The party is calling on Hogan to support the bills.

A deep blue state with some of the strongest gun legislation in the nation, Maryland already prohibits domestic abusers from having guns if they are subject to a final protective order, or are convicted of a disqualifying domestic violence crime. Although state law requires prohibited abusers under protective orders to turn in their guns while the orders are in place, there’s no such requirement for convicted abusers, a problem the two bills would fix, gun safety advocates told Rewire.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) has opposed legislation that would limit domestic abusers’ access to firearms, saying it would curtail the abusers’ Second Amendment rights.

Nearly four out of ten women have experienced partner violence in the state and the presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation makes it five times more likely that the woman will be killed, according to statistics from Everytown for Gun Safety, a national nonprofit that fights gun violence.

“Far too many families in Maryland are currently living in fear of a convicted abuser returning with a gun to inflict gruesome violence upon them and their loved ones,” Jennifer Stapleton, volunteer leader with the Maryland chapter of Moms Demand Action, said in a statement. “We owe it to ourselves, our children and the thousands of domestic violence survivors across our state to close this dangerous loophole. Too many lives are on the line.”

More than 187 people have died in domestic violence homicide incidents in Maryland and nearly 60 percent of those deaths were due to a gun, advocates pointed out.

“Last year, I held up pictures of 11 women who had been murdered by someone who should have never had a gun because of domestic violence,” said Atterbeary. “Given everything that’s going on in our society, I hope we can pass this.”

“This isn’t a partisan issue, it’s a public safety issue,” Smith said.

Maryland legislators are considering several gun-related bills. Hogan recently said he would “certainly consider” closing the domestic violence loophole, support banning bump stocks and trigger cranks, and is not in favor of President Trump’s plan to arm educators unless school boards make that decision, WBAL-TV 11 reported.

Endorsed by the National Rifle Association in 2014, Hogan barely discussed gun control during his gubernatorial campaign except to say he would not change existing laws, according to the Baltimore Sun.

Hogan in 2016 opposed legislation to ban guns on college campuses but signed a bill to not require fingerprinting for gun permit renewals. He received an A-minus rating from the NRA at that time but refused to release the questionnaire he filled out in 2014, the Washington Post reported.

This year, Hogan has refused to endorse some gun violence prevention bills introduced by Democrats, including legislation to keep guns out of the hands of those denied a State Police permit, according to the Maryland Democratic Party.

“Larry Hogan should be focused on keeping guns out of the hands of convicted domestic abusers and working with Democrats on closing this loophole in Maryland’s gun safety law, instead of being afraid of losing his precious A-minus NRA rating. The Governor needs to stop standing with the NRA and his Republican allies and support this life-saving bill to keep Marylanders and our communities safer,” Matthews said.

Last week, students from Montgomery County joined a nationwide walkout to demand action on gun violence and a local high school student reminded Hogan and other Maryland Republicans that they could be voted out this election year if they do not act.

The bills could reach Hogan’s desk as early as next month. Previous iterations of these bills have failed, but legislators are hopeful these will pass in the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida, school massacre and the renewed concerns around gun safety. 

“It just seems that the moment is right and there has been a lot of organizing going on around this effort,” said Smith, who said he’s “very optimistic” the bills will pass.

“Clearly we have some of the best gun laws in the country and there’s still a lot more we can do,” he said. “Ninety percent of the illegal guns found in Baltimore city are from somewhere else—Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia. So, while we have a lot of work to do in Maryland, it really does require a national, federal solution because we have open borders in our state.”

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