Those working to curb domestic violence say a Dayton woman shot and killed by her ex-boyfriend Sunday might still be alive if law enforcement could enforce firearms restrictions in civil protection orders.
Last Sunday’s murder-suicide outside a Dayton Family Dollar in many ways mirrors state and national domestic violence statistics involving firearms.
“There are lots of levers that can be pulled to make homicides a less likely outcome,” said Kim A. Gandy, president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “There are red flags, and the presence of firearms is one of the red flags. That dramatically increases the likelihood of homicide.”
An Ohio Domestic Violence Network study shows guns are used in the majority of domestic violence related fatalities in Ohio. And while judges often order those perpetrating the violence to give up their firearms when a protection order is issued, state law does not allow officers to seize those firearms.
Gun rights groups have opposed seizures without due process.
The study looked at 69 domestic violence cases with fatalities from July 2017 through June 2018. It showed that 71 percent of the incidents involved guns, and 15 of the cases studied were murder-suicide incidents, all of which were committed by men against women.
Additionally, four suicides involved attempted homicides, and three of the incidents involved guns, the study found.
Of the cases reviewed, 46 percent involved women who had ended or were in the process of ending the relationship, according to the study.
That’s what Donna Ruth Brown, 45, attempted to do July 19 when she obtained a temporary protection order against 62-year-old Dennis Haggin, her boyfriend of nearly 10 years. Haggin was served the order that same day, according to court officials.
Brown included in her petition for the protection order that Haggin had threatened to kill her and himself. She noted in her request that he followed her to the courts that day and tried to run her off the road.
While federal law prohibits people under full protection orders to own guns, it does not impose restrictions on temporary orders.
“That’s the most dangerous time for the victim. When the abuser knows the victim is trying to leave, she is now immediately at increased risk,” Gandy said.
‘He wants to see my face’
Brown is survived by nine children, including her daughter, Stephanie Dunn.
Dunn said after her mother ended the relationship, Haggin started harassing her, beating on her apartment door and following her when she stayed elsewhere.
Dunn said she was looking forward to having dinner with her mom that evening. Dunn said her mother was shopping with her twin sister at the store to buy plates for the dinner. Brown and her sister saw Haggin pull into the parking lot, according to Dunn.
“Her twin sister said, ‘Don’t go out there.’ She just said, ‘He wants to see my face.’ He wanted to see her face because he wanted to kill her,” Dunn said.
Dunn said, “Protection orders should be taken more seriously because even when they get one, they’re still free, so they’ll still try to make their way.”
Through July 17, the Montgomery County Domestic Relations Court had received 1,070 petitions for civil protection orders. In the week that followed, the court received 63 additional petitions, according to Court Administrator Jennifer Petrella-Ahrens.
“The numbers have risen in the last three years,” Ahrens said. “It’s significant. I don’t know if more victims are ready to end the violence, or word is getting out and people are utilizing services more, or if there’s an increase in the violence.”
Ahrens noted there has been an increase in outreach, as police, prosecutors and other agencies often refer domestic violence victims to the courts to seek civil protection orders.
The process for getting a temporary protection order approved is fairly quick. Victims can go to the court, fill out paperwork and get an emergency hearing with the judge on the same day. That’s what Brown did two days before her ex-boyfriend shot and killed her.
Ahrens said the key questions asked of the person seeking protection is whether they’ve been threatened with force or have already suffered physical violence.
Ahrens said Brown “gave a clear statement that he had threatened to kill her.”
No way to enforce provision
Judge Timothy Wood included among the provisions in the temporary protection order that Haggin should not possess any firearms.
That “relinquishing firearms” box is often checked by judges across the state, but there’s no way for Ohio law enforcement officers to enforce that provision, according to Micaela Deming, attorney for the Ohio Domestic Violence Network.
It’s up to the respondent of protection orders to surrender their firearms voluntarily, Deming said.
“There’s no current way to track for the court whether the guns were surrendered,” Deming said. “(Law enforcement) serves the order, it happens quickly usually, and then we just wait to see if they want to hand over their guns or not.”
Deming said federal law stipulates that subjects of full protection orders relinquish their weapons, but like many states, Ohio does not have a law that gives law enforcement permission to go into someone’s home or vehicle and seize them.
Deming serves on a subcommittee of the Ohio Supreme Court that is tasked with updating the forms that domestic violence victims need to fill out for civil protection orders. Among the most recent updates was a new form for law enforcement to fill out specific to whether the target of a protection order has handed over firearms.
Deming said the public hearing was last August, and nearly a year later the Supreme Court justices have yet to approve the updated forms. Firearm advocates such as the Buckeye Firearms Association put out a call to action for members to testify as part of the public hearing process.
Concern for rights of gun owners
So many gun owners responded to the call, it shut down the court’s email system, according to an October 2018 article by Jim Irvine, BFA chairman.
Irvine wrote that the state’s highest court was considering amendments to the Rules of Superintendence for the Courts of Ohio “that would empower law enforcement to seize guns without due process of law.”
The National Rifle Association also submitted a letter to the courts, stating in-part that such a change in Ohio law should be determined by the Ohio General Assembly, not by the Supreme Court justices.
“The issue of firearm restrictions and mandatory surrender in the context of protective orders has been raised and considered by the legislative branch, certainly as early as 2013 with House Bill 160,” NRA’s letter reads. “Most recently, House Bill 305 … would impose a scheme of firearm surrender upon the issuance of a protective order … House Bill 585 … creates a mandatory firearm relinquishment and surrender requirement upon the issuance of a new type of protective order, an ‘extreme risk protection order,’ against the respondent.”
Ohio lawmakers have not voted to adopt any of the proposed changes, and no current bills proposed address the gun relinquishment provision in protection orders.
The issue has been raised in other states. Earlier this month, news spread of a Florida woman who had a protection order against her estranged husband, was jailed on suspicion of theft and burglary after she took his firearms and delivered them to the local police station.
In King County, Wash., the sheriff’s office formed a task force to ensure that protection order targets relinquish their firearms.
“There are many states and jurisdictions that have high-risk teams where they identify people at potential risk of domestic violence and homicide,” Gandy said.
Derecka Merchant brought balloons to the vigil held for Brown outside the Family Dollar store Monday night.
The store re-opened Tuesday morning for the first time since the shooting deaths.
“It’s just really sad that we had to lose another strong black woman,” Merchant said. “I think the system needs to be checked, it needs to be fixed, it’s so rampant right now that we have to do something.”
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