Outgunned | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper


Everybody liked a state proposal that would better protect women from abusers. Except the part about taking away the men's guns.

In her first term as a Pennsylvania House member, Melissa Murphy Weber got to lead the charge on an issue dear to her heart: She became the prime sponsor of a bill that would make it tougher for domestic abusers.

Weber (R-Montgomery County) was head of the domestic violence unit for the district attorney in this heavily populated, diverse area bordering Philadelphia. During two years prosecuting abusers, she saw proof that stronger laws are needed to keep domestic violence from continuing -- for one, laws to keep abusive men away from women for longer periods than is currently mandated.

A bill to accomplish that, she says, "needs to pass."

It wasn't hard to get 50 other legislators to sign on to legislation that statewide domestic violence agencies had been working on for seven years with help from the Pennsylvania State Police Association, Pennsylvania Sheriffs' Association, state Office of Victim Advocates, the governor's staff and others. House Bill 2403 would strengthen the rules governing a Protection From Abuse order -- a decades-old instrument used by the courts primarily to keep men away from women if a judge finds evidence of domestic violence. Judges may grant an emergency 24-hour PFA, followed by a temporary 10-day PFA. After a hearing involving the defendant and his witnesses and lawyer, the judge can issue a "permanent" 18-month PFA.

PFAs don't result in criminal convictions or jail time. They merely separate two people already married or in a sexual relationship. In an abusive situation, PFAs ideally are the judicial equivalent of preventive medicine.

Among the major changes proposed under HB 2403, PFAs could be issued against an abusive partner one was merely dating, not just a sexual or marriage partner (the current restriction). "Permanent" PFAs would be three years instead of 18 months. And courts would be required to consider the risk of future abuse in deciding temporary child custody or visitation rights, not just a past history of abuse.

Such changes are necessary, say lawmakers, because of the prevalence of abused women in Pennsylvania [see sidebar: "One Woman's PFA"]. According to state police, about 50,000 people -- more than 90 percent of them men -- are subject to Protection From Abuse orders at any one time in the Commonwealth. Since March 1, 2003, in Allegheny County, 3,898 PFAs have been issued.

This May, the House Judiciary Committee passed the bill unanimously, and it seemed headed for a vote. Then it stalled completely.

There are arguments against PFAs in any form, made most often by "fathers' rights" groups: PFAs can be filed without cause or merely as leverage in child custody cases. They are too easy to get, say these groups, and don't always allow the defendant to respond until the "permanent" PFA hearing. And a PFA hearing isn't a "real" trial since there are no specific charges and the defendant isn't found guilty or innocent, they complain.

But those aren't sticking points here.

The trouble is guns.

Under current PFA rules, judges can remove only the weapon used (or used as a threat) during incidents precipitating the PFA. The new PFA rules would allow judges to take more guns from defendants -- all their guns, for the length of the PFA order, if the defendant is deemed a violence risk.

Statewide, nearly two dozen gun-owners' groups are up in arms -- "the largest coalition of opposition ever to oppose anti-gun legislation in Pennsylvania," says Harry Schneider, legislative chairman of the Pennsylvania Sportsmen's Association, one of the opposition groups. Bill opponents include everyone from state chapters of Second Amendment Sisters and Pink Pistols (gay gun owners) to the NRA's state affiliate, Pennsylvania Rifle and Pistol Association. The groups were notified of the bill by state Rep. Teresa Forcier (R-Crawford County), who now leads a trio of legislators (including Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler County) and Russell H. Fairchild (R-Snyder and Union counties in central Pa.)) in making the gun groups' arguments. Schneider calls Forcier and Metcalfe "the preeminent voices of grass roots, law abiding, gun owning Pennsylvanians."

Ironically, before the state gun groups galvanized against the PFA bill, the National Rifle Association had already negotiated favorable changes to the bill this spring. The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence made NRA-requested changes to

- let defendants know immediately that they may have to give up their guns

- require sheriffs to give defendants receipts for their guns -- including the guns' condition

- let defendants give their guns to federally licensed firearms dealers instead of sheriffs

- let the guns be sold or transferred to another owner even while out of a defendant's possession, and

- set procedures for the guns' return

Then, according to both sides in the fight, the NRA agreed not to oppose the bill as long as the vote was scheduled after its national convention, held in April in Pittsburgh.

Wimps, Pennsylvania gun groups declared. Slackers.

The NRA is "pretty much a waste -- that's my opinion. They have no base with us," says Roy Pittman, head of Pennsylvania Gun Owners Association in Centerville, another opposition group. Pennsylvania's constitution is even clearer than the federal Second Amendment, he points out: It says the right to own guns "shall not be questioned." HB 2403 should be "scrapped altogether," he concludes.

Barring that -- still a possibility before the legislative session ends in November -- Reps. Forcier and Metcalfe then secured more changes to HB 2403, making sure this bill aimed at protecting women from domestic violence will now:

- require those seeking PFAs to notify the court that the alleged abuser needs his gun for work -- for example, as a police officer or security guard

- allow gun dealers under PFAs to keep their firearms license and their inventory if giving up all those guns would hurt the business or its employees

- make the sheriff transport the defendant's guns to a gun dealer for safekeeping during the 10-day temporary PFA

- eliminate listing defendants' guns on the state's PFA registry

- set sheriffs' maximum gun-storage fees at $10 per gun and $10 for ammunition or other weapons

- allow defendants to seek restitution from sheriffs if a gun is lost or damaged

Most recently, changes were made without the cooperation of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. These latest changes would create specific standards for weapons relinquishment and reduce the penalties if any third party gives a weapon back to a defendant while the PFA is in effect.

The Coalition was formed in Harrisburg in 1976 to get the state's first PFA bill passed and has worked to get other improvements to the PFA rules since, including the last major changes a decade ago. After 22 bill changes prompted by the NRA and pro-gun legislators, Coalition officials including Judy Yupcavage seem a little exasperated.

"We can't negotiate with every single sportsman who has an idea," says Yupcavage, Coalition public policy and information manager. "The presence of a gun is so much more of a temptation" for abusers. "You're saying don't even try to make it harder [to harm], make it safer? Suddenly it's become about the rights of gun owners. Lost in all this is the fact that this is about violent, dangerous individuals. Often they kill themselves too. What we're taking about is lowering the fatalities."

Yupcavage insists that HB 2403 "is not a partisan issue, it's not a gun issue, it's a safety issue. The focus should be on the safety of the victims, not the safe-keeping of guns."

As for the potential loss of one's guns: "At some point it's the price of being violent. Yeah, you may not be able to hunt.

"Truly guns are the weapons of choice for domestic-violence fatalities," she concludes. "There is a reduction when guns are removed. It just makes sense."

It's tough to quantify how much abuse victims should fear deadly gun violence and how many gun owners should fear having their guns removed.

The Pennsylvania Coalition reports that there were 161 domestic-violence-related deaths statewide in 2003: 124 abuse victims and 35 perpetrators (31 committed suicide, 4 were shot by police), as well as the parents of a perpetrator who killed themselves in reaction to his crime.

But this information is based solely on news accounts; there is no official tally. Everyone from law enforcement to teachers and clergy are required to report suspected child abuse to the state, but no one is obliged to report suspicions of domestic violence. The Coalition says nearly 96,000 people used one of their 62 domestic violence programs in 2003, and 10,000 used a shelter.

The number of PFA defendants whose guns were confiscated is tougher still to calculate. Allegheny County's sheriff's department collects the guns from PFA defendants in only some of the county's municipalities. They collected 61 guns from 18 defendants in 2000, 69 from 18 defendants in 2001, 60 from 24 defendants in 2002, 84 from 18 defendants in 2003, and 25 from only 4 defendants so far in 2004.

While larger municipalities such as the City of Pittsburgh and Mount Lebanon collect their own guns from PFA defendants, their police departments don't keep a specific count, lumping their numbers in with guns collected from crime suspects.

On some gun owners' Internet sites, including packing.org, whose members report lobbying their legislators against the new PFA rules, the rhetoric can be rather strong: "The sponsors of this bill should [be] ARRESTED AND [IM]PRISONED IN HARD LABOR FOR LIFE for even sponsoring an evil, Satanic, Antichrist Nazi-Soviet bill like this!" The author says he plans to move -- the new PFA rules are part of a plot to remove all guns from Pennsylvanians.

The legislators and gun groups are more temperate.

Rep. Teresa Forcier reads a statement over the phone, drafted by Harry Schneider of Pa. Gun Owners: "We are united in opposing domestic violence and every other form of violence except where a violent response is necessary and appropriate to deter a violent attack upon the innocent."

In other words: Hey, what if we're attacked and we don't have our guns? "I am a real supporter of the carry permit," Forcier explains. "We must stop victimizing and demonizing innocent gun owners.

"We don't want to go ‘guns vs. victims,'" in debating the need to better protect abuse victims or guns owners, she emphasizes. But the equation is hard to escape. Forcier doesn't even have faith in our judicial system to discover those PFAs that are justified and those that aren't: "We are very skeptical of any more power to the judges. We know where some of the anti-gun judges are going to come from."

What some see as arguments for gun control, legislators pressing the gun owners' case view in the opposite light.

Butler County Rep. Daryl Metcalfe echoes the sentiments of other pro-gun legislators: While they are concerned for domestic violence victims, "It's important to me, as 2403 or any legislation is considered, that rights are not taken away from law-abiding citizens."

Which is odd, because that's exactly what Metcalfe attempted this spring, helping to lead the support for legislation to take away the rights of gay couples to adopt their children -- rights granted several years ago in Pennsylvania. That hasn't deterred state Pink Pistols leader Gwen Patton from working with Metcalfe against the new PFA rules.

"Well, we're fighting one battle at a time," Patton says.

PFAs, she says, are too often abused and lull real victims into "a false sense of security. They don't realize that a truly abusive person that is bent on doing them harm is not going to be persuaded by a piece of paper."

She isn't convinced that a gun is easier to kill with than, say, a baseball bat.

"You take a jug of milk, [hit it] with a baseball bat, splatter it -- it's easy," she argues. "It's not physically demanding. A gun -- it's a tool."

Nor does she believe disarming the defendant in an abuse case is erring wisely on the side of caution: "I prefer to arm the woman who is suffering from abuse" -- an idea promoted by other opposition groups as well.

"We have no problem with people who are criminals being put in prison and being stripped of all their rights," says Michael Hammond, lawyer for another opposition group, Gun Owners of America, whose national headquarters is in Springfield, Va. They have no state chapters, but Hammond says he has alerted Pennsylvania members to contact their legislators.

Hammond is most concerned about a judge's ability to seize weapons during the 24-hour emergency PFA and the 10-day temporary PFA, when hearings may be held "ex parte" -- without the defendant present. "The notion that government manages these relationships, and that these relationships can be managed with ex parte [proceedings], is more and more common," he says. In what has "too frequently become a he-said, she-said power battle," one side can't even get their say for nearly two weeks, he complains.

Roy Pittman of Pennsylvania Gun Owners Association compares a PFA hearing to a preemptive strike against a possible DUI offender: "How long would you like to have your [driver's] license pulled because someone said you might stop and have a drink someday? If you're going to take someone's rights away, they damn well ought to be found guilty of something."

The crux of the matter, say opposition groups, is that the Constitutional rights of innocents will be harmed more often than women will be protected.

Trouble is, gun groups have a hard time producing a real victim -- a gun owner who has been harmed by the removal of his guns under a PFA order.

Know of any?

"Not right off the top of my head," says Pa. Gun Owners' Roy Pittman.

Says Pink Pistols' Gwen Patton: "I haven't personally run into anyone in my experience."

But this bill protecting domestic-violence victims may not have a chance any longer in this state.

"We need to get with the [gun] groups, Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and down the road come up with a bill -- but it won't be 2403," says Rep. Teresa Forcier.

An unsigned memo sent from Forcier's office, alongside the statement by Harry Schneider (of Pennsylvania Sportsmen's Association), says 2403 "may be dead" but warns opposition groups to be on the lookout for the same legislation under a different title or number, or submitted as "a late-night amendment."

State Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny County) is indeed planning to bring 2403 back. He will attempt "kind of a guerilla warfare strategy" this fall, he says. "We all like to be tough on crime. My intention will be to take this bill and amend it to every potential Title 18 [Pa. crime code] bill that comes up to a vote and hopefully force the hand of the majority leader" to allow legislators to decide the bill's fate. "I have no doubt, if we could get it to the floor, this would pass. Colleagues of mine would be embarrassed not to vote for this kind of bill."

Frankel, who chairs the House's legislative gun-safety caucus, says opposition to 2403 is "a perfect example of how some of the most extreme gun-advocate groups have been able to demand" that their rights take precedence over safety issues.

While legislators like Frankel are still trying to usher the bill through the legislative process, victim advocates like Marc Booker spend every weekday escorting women through the PFA application process. He is supervisor of legal advocacy services for Crisis Center North in Ross Township, which offers counseling and education to victims of domestic violence, including helping those in the worst circumstances find shelters or emergency housing.

"I know their stories," he says. "When I hear the stories of mostly women...who have been terrorized, it angers me that there is a [current PFA] statute that says I can threaten you with one gun and this is the only gun that can be taken away while you're under that protective order."

Domestic violence cuts across all socioeconomic and racial lines; in suburban North Hills, he says, "We have no lack of business." And it's not too easy to get a PFA, he adds -- "in light of the fact that abuse is too easy to perpetrate."

The PFA has many benefits, Booker explains: It also helps keep violence from the children of an abusive relationship, stopping a cycle that, history shows, turns victims into eventual perpetrators. And he's not against gun ownership, he stresses. But clearly guns cause trouble for the women he sees. In his few months at the center, half the cases he's encountered have involved a weapon of some sort.

Like other victims' advocates, Booker can't help sounding just a little exasperated with Second Amendment groups in the end: "If you're a gun owner who does not want to lose his guns, how about not being an abuser?"

One Woman's PFA

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