Getting guns away from abusers will save lives

by Megan Walsh and David Lamb

“273.D.” The dispatch code for domestic violence sends chills down the spines of law enforcement officers, who know these calls to be among the most dangerous. Early on the morning of Feb. 18, police and first responders in Burnsville, Minn., saw just how deadly domestic abuse incidents can be. Although they saved seven children and the killer’s girlfriend from harm, two officers and a firefighter were killed.

This tragedy was avoidable. Federal laws and statutes in every state prohibit domestic abusers from having access to guns. The perpetrator of the triple homicide near the Twin Cities was one such offender. After being convicted for assault with a dangerous weapon, he was barred from possessing firearms. Yet in the Feb. 18 shooting, he fired hundreds of rounds from multiple guns.

Far too often, failures in implementing laws that seek to disarm abusers leave guns in their hands. In 2022, a Colorado man who was required to surrender his guns because of a restraining order shot and killed four people. Before that, an Ohio man who was prohibited from owning guns killed his 2-year-old son and shot his wife.

For more than a year, we at the University of Minnesota Law School’s Gun Violence Prevention Clinic have investigated how domestic abusers hold onto guns in Minnesota despite being barred from possessing them, and the vital questions that follow. What can be done to make the laws requiring abusers to surrender their firearms more effective? How can we save lives in a country where domestic abusers pose a grave danger — not just to their families, but to the public and to law enforcement?

What we found surprised us. Laws like Minnesota’s, which require abusers and those subject to restraining orders to surrender their firearms, are routinely ignored.

Some major obstacles to the laws’ efficacy are written into the statutes themselves. Minnesota’s, for example, do not make clear who is responsible for enforcing them, leaving stakeholders unsure about their roles.

Other challenges stem from information vacuums. Often lacking strong evidence about whether an offender possesses guns, courts regularly rely on abusers’ self-reports. Beyond Minnesota, a growing national trend toward allowing people to carry guns without permits — now legal across a majority of states — leaves law enforcement further in the dark about who owns guns.

Plea deals can also create life-threatening gaps. Abusers charged with an offense that requires them to give up their weapons may plead to lesser crimes that do not obligate them to surrender guns. The factors that lead to deals are complex and can make them the most just outcome in a criminal proceeding. But the consequences of leaving firearms in the hands of domestic abusers — who are five times more likely to murder their partners when they can access a gun — should be factored into any negotiation.

How can we make domestic violence gun surrender laws as powerful as they need to be?

Stronger laws offer one avenue. Requiring police departments to accept surrendered firearms is a straightforward fix. Another involves clarifying the enforcement process in the laws themselves. When local and regional law enforcers better understand their roles and courts are obligated to hold hearings on whether abusers surrendered their firearms as they were ordered to, compliance can markedly improve.

Education is an essential tool as well. Teaching prosecutors, judges, law enforcement and probation and parole officers about their roles in ensuring abusers surrender their weapons would address deadly oversights.

Other fixes are as simple as creating better judicial forms. Judges sometimes fail to issue orders requiring abusers to surrender their guns simply because the courts are unaware that the offenders possess firearms. Adding a field to petitions for restraining orders that asks whether the alleged abuser has access to guns would largely solve this problem.

Better laws and stronger implementation of them would help compel abusers to surrender their weapons or allow police to seize them before a crisis leads to tragedy.

Megan Walsh is the director of the University of Minnesota Law School’s Gun Violence Prevention Clinic, where David Lamb serves as the student director leading the domestic violence prevention team.