Vermont is a safe state. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Vermont has the second lowest per capita rate of violent crime in the country. Despite this distinction, Vermont has a persistent and dangerous domestic violence problem. Over the past five years, the number of people sentenced for felony domestic violence has increased by 23%. Between 1994 and 2017, half of all homicides in Vermont were related to domestic violence.
There is a strong and deadly relationship between domestic violence and firearms. Of all women shot to death in the United States, half were shot by their intimate partners. In Vermont, over half (55%) of domestic violence homicides between 1994 and 2017 were committed with firearms. Even when abuse does not end in homicide, abusers’ access to firearms can enable them to injure, threaten, and traumatize their partners.
Often, before these harms occur, law enforcement has been involved. Of women killed by their intimate partners in the United States, half had contact with the criminal justice system about their abuse within the preceding year. Contacts with law enforcement provide critical windows of opportunities for intervention to prevent harm.
Recognizing this, in 2018 the legislature passed Act 92, which allows law enforcement to remove firearms when they respond to a report of domestic violence. Similar protections, however, are not in place for domestic abuse victims who use the civil court process to seek safety. The most lethal time for victims of domestic violence is when they initially separate from their partners. At this time they may seek a relief from abuse order requiring the abuser to cease contact.
During the current session, the House Judiciary Committee has been working on a bill, H.610, that would provide additional protections when an individual seeks a relief from abuse order in civil court. The bill seeks to ensure that these protections are consistently available to victims across the State. It standardizes procedures to ensure relinquishment of firearms by an abuser when a relief from abuse order is issued, thus taking advantage of the window of opportunity when a victim has taken the step to end the abuse.
Courts already have the authority to order relinquishment of firearms, but this authority is inconsistently exercised. Perhaps a victim does not think to tell the court that the abuser possesses firearms. Even if the court orders firearm relinquishment, it may not occur because there is not a clear path for law enforcement to retrieve firearms from households.
H.610 would add clarity and consistency to the process of seeking emergency and final relief from abuse orders that include provisions requiring relinquishment of firearms. When someone goes to court to seek a relief from abuse order, the individual must fill out an affidavit and complaint form provided by the court. The bill would require the affidavit to include a prompt asking whether the alleged abuser possesses firearms. If the affidavit or other evidence indicates that this is the case, the court must include a relinquishment requirement if it issues a relief from abuse order.
When a law enforcement officer serves the order, the officer will determine whether to immediately seek relinquishment or whether to obtain a warrant to seize the firearms, depending on factors such as safety and the logistics of removing the firearms. The bill requires that the return of service (a document filed with the court indicating that the order has been served) must state the number of firearms, if any, that were relinquished. The bill also requires law enforcement serving the order to attempt to contact the person who sought the order following relinquishment or seizure of firearms. Both of these provisions are aimed at providing information to help give the person escaping abuse a sense of security.
Ensuring that the issue of firearms relinquishment is addressed would save lives, as research demonstrates. A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, for example, found that state laws requiring that abusers relinquish guns are linked to a 12 to 16 percent reduction in intimate partner murders with guns.
H.610 contains other provisions to reduce firearm violence, particularly in the context of domestic violence. It would close the so-called Charleston Loophole for background checks; make it a State crime for an individual subject to an emergency or final relief from abuse order to possess, ship, transport, or receive a firearm; and allow a family member to seek an Extreme Risk Protection Order directly from the court rather than having to go through law enforcement. The bill provides additional tools to reduce firearm homicides and injuries in the context of domestic violence.