Judges alone can’t keep guns from domestic abusers

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings made headlines recently with his lament that judges are “not doing enough” to take firearms away from those who slide through the justice system for domestic abuse. Agreed: Domestic abusers aren’t the people we want to have guns. But if judges can disarm these thugs now, why aren’t more Dallas County judges doing just that?

It turns out this is a more complex problem than many people might assume. Since 2015, Dallas County has run a gun surrender program that it hoped would collect thousands of firearms from domestic abusers. In practice, it has collected about 100 guns in two years. The reason for the shortcoming is that law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and city attorneys are coming up short, too, according to a study released last spring by the Dedman School of Law at Southern Methodist University. The reasons for that read like a laundry list of snafus in a bureaucracy: poor collaboration and communication, failure to consistently ask about gun access throughout the legal process, and a lack of clear procedures to hold offenders accountable.

What’s happening is that officials have lost sight of the bigger picture. Domestic violence is a moral blight, and it is therefore incumbent upon the city to strengthen the partnerships that underpin the Dallas County Gun Surrender Program. Doing so will save lives.

Judge Roberto Cañas, who pioneered the program, routinely asks accused abusers about gun possession when they appear in his court. Giving up those guns is then part of the process of moving forward. Other judges aren’t as focused on guns, and sometimes others in the process fail to let the judge know an abuser is a gun owner. That could be fixed by establishing a point person to make sure gun reports make it into the court record. Following up on offenders who lie about gun possession would also help.

Nationally, hundreds of women are shot to death by their intimate partners and millions are threatened with a firearm. About 52 percent of domestic abuse survivors in a National Domestic Violence Hotline survey said they would feel safer if law enforcement took their partner’s guns and 67 percent believed their partner was capable of killing them.

And it is not just the intimate partner who is at risk. Gunmen in recent mass killings had domestic violence histories. Lives might have been saved had these punks lost their guns.

Dallas County can do a better job protecting vulnerable individuals from domestic gun violence. It can start by addressing the problems that are hampering the gun surrender program.

But guns in domestic violence altercations will continue to be a fixable and therefore inexcusable problem until the justice system — from a 911 call to prosecution — makes it a priority to prevent domestic abusers from expressing their rage with a firearm.

— The Dallas Morning News