A Greater Priority

The recent murder of a young woman in Kentucky has given legislators cause for concern about current laws regarding domestic violence and firearms. Despite the fact that approximately 1,800 women are murdered each year by men in single victim/single offender incidents, it remains surprisingly easy for known domestic abusers to obtain guns and hold onto them—even after engaging in violent acts.

On September 11, Amanda Ross, 29, was found shot and lying in the back corner of a parking lot outside her Lexington home. She was taken to the University of Kentucky Medical Center, where she died. Hours later, police found Ross’ ex- fiancée, former state Rep. Steve Nunn, in a cemetery near his parents’ graves with what appeared to be self-inflicted wrist wounds and a .38 revolver—the same caliber weapon used to kill Ross. Nunn fired the gun at police and was immediately arrested. After telling investigators that he was “at the end of his rope and wanted revenge,” he was charged with the murder of Ross and violation of a protective order.

Nunn GravesNunn had become the subject of the restraining order after he was accused of attacking Ross in February. In the complaint, Ross claimed that Nunn become violent during an argument at her home, hit her in the face four times, pushed her against a wall, broke a lamp, and threw a cup of bourbon at her. Nunn was put on administrative leave from his job as the Deputy Secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services and officially resigned from his position in March.

It is not known at this time where Nunn obtained the .38 revolver found in his possession. As the subject of an active restraining order, Nunn was prohibited under federal law from possessing firearms. Unfortunately, there are few state laws in this area (24 states have restrictions on access to firearms by persons under active restraining orders, 13 have restrictions on access to firearms by domestic violence misdemeanants, and 18 allow confiscation of firearms at a domestic violence scene) and state and local law enforcement authorities rarely confiscate firearms from domestic abusers. Typically, local law enforcement would rely on federal agents to confiscate these firearms, but the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) lacks the manpower to handle such requests. As Greg Vincent, the president of the Kentucky County Attorney Association, has noted, “For the average Joe who doesn’t make it onto the front page or onto every TV station, the ATF doesn’t come down.”

Only one county in Kentucky, Jefferson County, is currently removing guns from the homes of domestic violence offenders. The county’s Sheriff’s Department now holds 4,700 firearms in a vault that were confiscated from such individuals. The Operations Commander for the department, Chris Hancock, has said, “I most certainly think it saves lives.” Still, there are challenges in getting others to follow suit. Jefferson Family Court Judge Jerry Bowles, a national domestic violence expert who served on a statewide domestic violence task force with Steve Nunn in 1991, has stated that the effort to uphold the law on a state level is “a struggle because a lot of judges work to circumvent the laws because of their own personal views.”

Kentucky legislators, to their credit, have stepped up to address the problem. Reps. Joni Jenkins and Mary Lou Marzian of Louisville are drafting a state law to prevent those under protective orders from retaining their firearms. Jenkins has also proposed a measure that would extend Domestic Violence Orders (DVOs) to dating couples (currently, DVOs are available only to those who are married or living together). Finally, Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo plans to offer legislation named for Ross that would allow judges to require those with protection orders against them to wear ankle bracelets that track their whereabouts.

In commenting on the murder of Amanda Ross, Brian Namey of the National Network to End Domestic Violence pointed out that “more than three times as many women are murdered with guns by their partners than are murdered by a stranger’s weapon.” Thankfully, even those who typically pay homage to the gun lobby are now taking note of that fact. In February, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the federal law that bars those convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors from owning guns. And Kentucky Judge Bowles recently set the stage for action in his own state by declaring that “the priority to protect women’s lives is greater than the constitutional right to bear arms.”

Those will be welcome words to women across America who are suffering in abusive relationships.

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