Story By: Ann Givens
In the first 16 months after a state law established a process for domestic abusers to turn over their guns, only 15 people have relinquished their firearms through the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, according to a new report. That’s despite the fact that the New Orleans Police Department makes about 3,000 domestic violence arrests each year.
The report, by watchdog group Court Watch NOLA, says that the Orleans Parish magistrate, Harry E. Cantrell, and four commissioners who oversee bail hearings, often fail to ask about guns, though state law requires them to. When they have asked, 98 percent of accused domestic abusers said they don’t have firearms. That seems unlikely, given that domestic abuse and sexual assault survivors in the parish report that their abusers have guns about 40 percent of the time, according to New Orleans Family Justice Center. Also, nearly half of Louisiana residents are estimated to own a gun, according to a 2015 study.
“This is a new law, and no one has prioritized it,” said Simone Levine, executive director of Court Watch NOLA. Her organization’s report, which is released annually, covers a range of issues related to the New Orleans courts, including bail, victims’ rights, and plea bargaining. In 2019, the group deployed nearly 200 volunteer court watchers to observe and take notes in the hearings where a person subject to a protective order would typically be asked to disclose whether they have guns. They court watchers attended 334 such hearings.
According to the report, Orleans Parish officials asked whether a defendant owned or had access to guns in less than a third of the hearings. By law, judges are required to ask whether a defendant has guns when granting a protective order or after a domestic violence conviction. If they say that they do, the judge should sign an order requiring the defendant to prove that they turned in, sold, or transferred their guns within 48 hours.
Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier, Deputy Chief Judge of the Criminal District Court Robin Pittman, and Magistrate Court Presiding Judge Harry Catrell did not return calls and emails seeking comment. Orleans Criminal Court Judicial Administrator Robert Kazik, who is the de facto spokesperson for the court, did not respond to questions by deadline.
Mary Claire Landry, executive director of New Orleans Family Justice Alliance, said: “If a judge doesn’t ask about firearms and [the perpetrator] is released from jail, then [his partner] is going to be in more danger.”
The law that prohibits domestic abusers from having guns passed the state Legislature in 2014 and penalties went into effect in 2018. Under the law, anyone who has been convicted of domestic violence or who is subject to a domestic violence protective order is prohibited from buying or possessing firearms. The measure was part of a slate of laws aimed at protecting abuse survivors.
Domestic violence has long been a serious problem in the state. According to the Violence Policy Center, in 2019, men killed women in Louisiana at a higher rate than in any other state besides Alaska, and the state has ranked within the top 10 states for men killing women in nine of the last 10 years. Of the women killed by men in Louisiana in 2019, 67 percent were killed with a gun, according to the Violence Policy Center report. When an abuser has access to a gun, he is four times more likely to kill his partner, one national studyshowed.
“The criminal justice system should be able to do risk assessments based on the perpetrator’s behavior and not always put that on the backs of survivors,” Landry said.
Ken Daley, communications director for the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office, declined to do an interview and cited short staffing because of the coronavirus pandemic.
At least one community in Louisiana is getting guns away from domestic abusers. As The Trace reported in February, Lafourche Parish, a rural community about 60 miles west of New Orleans, collected about 130 guns from domestic abusers between January 2019 and February 2020. Law enforcement officers there detail any evidence of firearms in police reports, so there’s a record in the court file. They also ask every domestic violence defendant to sign a form describing their firearms, or swearing that they don’t have any.
Even within Orleans Parish, there is at least one judge who says she routinely gets domestic abusers to hand over guns. Judge Bernadette D’Souza is a civil court judge, and oversees hearings for civil domestic violence protective orders. Her court is not included in the Court Watch NOLA report, but several people said she has been successful at getting guns away from accused abusers. She said she routinely asks both the petitioner and the subject of the protective order to take the stand and answer questions about guns during a protective order hearing. If the defendant says they do not have guns, D’Souza tells them that if they are later caught with a gun, they will be in violation of the protective order and could face up to 10 years in prison on the charge.
“I’ve not done my job if I’ve not made that inquiry,” D’Souza said. “What if I didn’t ask, only to find out that the defendant later used the weapon to kill the woman?”
Mariah Stidham Wineski, executive director of the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said she’s not surprised to hear that few abusers have turned over their guns in Orleans Parish. She said it seems that the law is being implemented unevenly across the state. She said Lafourche’s success is proof that it can work, but in other places whether a defendant turns in their guns depends on which judge is assigned to the case.
“This is a huge change for everyone,” Wineski added. “I don’t think anyone expected it to work overnight.”
Blake Arcuri, the general counsel for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, said one issue is that many of the domestic violence defendants appearing in criminal court are convicted felons who are already barred from having guns. If they were to admit to having a gun in court, they could be sent to prison for five to 20 years. If caught lying, they would only be subject to a $100 fine or 24 hours in jail.