The footnote that could revive an effort to strip guns from domestic abusers

Senate Judiciary Chairman Jesse Stone counts votes during a hearing on a bill to prohibit convicted domestic abusers from possessing firearms. The bill passed the committee unanimously. Bob Andres,

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Senate Judiciary Chairman Jesse Stone counts votes during a hearing on a bill to prohibit convicted domestic abusers from possessing firearms. The bill passed the committee unanimously. Bob Andres,

Ever since Gov. Brian Kemp put his signature to the measure, many Republicans in the state Capitol have wondered how they might assuage female voters angered by Georgia's new, highly restrictive anti-abortion law.

Last month, House Speaker David Ralston formed a House committee to tackle maternal deaths in Georgia. As of 2016, our state had a mortality rate among new mothers (37.2 per 100,000 live births) that was higher than Uzbekistan. That's right, Uzbekistan.

Otherwise, ideas on how Republicans might improve their feminist credentials have been scarce. But we’ve found one for them.

It comes courtesy of a small footnote contained in a recent opinion handed down by the state Court of Appeals. The densely worded paragraph could provide the Legislature with a reason to revive a stalled measure to strip firearms from those found guilty of domestic abuse.

First, the background: Senate Bill 150 was introduced this year by state Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta. It would prohibit those convicted of misdemeanor crimes of family violence from possessing a gun. (Felons already are prohibited from owning firearms.) The bill would also strengthen the hand of judges who attempt to step between an abuser and the abused.

Jordan's bill mirrors federal legislation that's been on the books since the 1990s. More important, the measure resembles a bill introduced — and abandoned — in the House two years ago by three Republicans. Among them was Brian Strickland of McDonough, who is now in the Senate — and is one of the governor's floor leaders.

“That’s why it originally seemed like a no-brainer to me,” Jordan said this week.

A March 4 hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee was immaculately bipartisan. Sherry Boston, the (Democratic) district attorney for DeKalb County, endorsed SB 150. So did Stephanie Woodard, the (Republican) solicitor for Hall County.

Law enforcement figures provided the statistics. In 2018, there were 143 domestic violence fatalities in Georgia. Seventy-two percent involved a firearm.

But the most effective witness was probably Janet Paulson of Acworth, a mother of twin boys who told her gun-collecting husband in 2015 that she wanted a divorce.

Acworth resident Janet Paulson, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in March. Bob Andres,

Credit: Bob Andres

icon to expand image

Credit: Bob Andres

“There were 74 firearms in my home. I asked them to be confiscated,” Paulson said. A judge ordered Paulson’s husband to surrender the weapons. But the husband held one back, and Cobb County sheriff’s deputies didn’t think they had the authority to take it from him — a situation that SB 150 would address.

“Five nights later, he ambushed me and shot me six times with a 9-mm at close range,” Paulson told the Senate committee. Then he turned the gun on himself. She’s now paralyzed from the waist down.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, which includes some of the most conservative members of the chamber, gave unanimous approval to Jordan’s measure. Strickland was among them, as was Blake Tillery of Vidalia, another of the governor’s floor leaders.

Then came the deluge.

Georgia Gun Owners, a group that bills itself as a less compromising version of the National Rifle Association, says it pounded state lawmakers with almost 10,000 emails. Strickland and Tillery were primary targets, and SB 150 was stopped in its tracks. It remains frozen in place.

Ten days later, the state Court of Appeals handed down a decision in the State vs. Burgess, the 2013 case of a Gilmer County man indicted for possession of methamphetamine and illegal explosives.

Steve Burgess and his girlfriend shared a child. The relationship became fraught. Much of the evidence against him was gathered after deputies had served Burgess with a temporary protective order sought by the woman.

The decision was written by a judicial panel presided over by Sara Doyle, who is now seeking a seat on the state Supreme Court. On Page 14 is a footnote that questions the authority of Georgia judges to demand the surrender of firearms in domestic abuse cases when temporary protection orders (TPOs) are issued.

Judges can forbid an alleged abuser from having contact with the abused. They can address child custody issues. They can divide property.

But under Georgia law, the footnote reads, “[t]here is no language included that would allow a court to take possession of one of the parties’ personal belongings without also assigning ownership to the other party.”

Go back and read that last sentence carefully. The implication is that the only legal way a judge can take guns out of the hands of an abuser is to put them in the hands of the abused.

While that may sound tempting, defusing these situations probably requires something else.

A footnote is not an opinion. Even so, it has caused a stir in law enforcement circles. Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, said the footnote is likely to become a focus of conversation at an upcoming summer conference.

In the meantime, Norris said he’s advising Georgia’s 159 sheriffs to leave the details to the lawyers. “Our advice to the sheriffs is, follow the order. If the TPO says seize weapons from whomever, then we’re going to do that,” Norris said.

But if an abuser refuses to comply with a judge’s order to surrender his weapons, deputies don’t have any authority to look for them, he noted. “We’re recommending the signing of an affidavit from the abuser saying he’s agreed to relinquish those weapons,” Norris said.

In other words, deputies will accept the weapons that the abuser volunteers.

In Oconee County, Sheriff Scott Berry said his deputies have stopped collecting firearms when a judge orders them surrendered in domestic abuse cases.

“What are we going to do when we go to the door and say we have a temporary protective order and we need all your guns – what is going to happen if we have to force the issue?” Berry asked. “Are we going to use force to enforce that order? I don’t think that’s constitutional. In order to seize something, we have to search for it.

“All the state authorizes the judge to do is give the order. All we’re authorized to do is serve it,” Berry said.

We do not know what Governor Kemp thinks about this situation, or whether those convicted of domestic abuse should be barred from possessing guns. But last month, Vic Reynolds, Kemp's new GBI director, appeared to endorse much of what’s contained in SB 150. It would be good for all parties, especially law enforcement, he said.

"If an individual has had a previous domestic violence situation, particularly a conviction, then I think there's a very strong argument that that individual does not need to have a weapon," he told a reporter for WABE (90.1FM).

Reynolds knows the legal realities that hamstring judicial and law enforcement authorities. He was the district attorney for Cobb County when Janet Paul’s husband surrendered 73 guns in 2015 in response to a judge’s order – but held one back.