Editorial: Warren’s smart approach on guns, domestic violence

Published December 15 2017
Updated December 15 2017

Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren would make it safer for victims and police alike with his plan to remove firearms from defendants charged with domestic violence. These cases are toxic enough, and having guns at the ready only adds to a dangerous environment. This is a sensible step to improve public safety that does not infringe on a defendant’s constitutional rights.

Federal law prohibits anyone convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from owning a gun. In addition, Florida bars gun ownership by any person convicted of a felony — including of domestic violence — or who is subject to a civil injunction for domestic violence.

Warren’s plan goes further. He wants to bring more consistency to the enforcement of existing laws. Under his policy, police will interview victims and offenders to determine if the suspect has access to a firearm and forward a risk assessment to Warren’s office. Prosecutors will check to see if an offender is legally barred from owning a firearm. And at a defendant’s initial appearance or bail hearing, prosecutors will seek the relinquishment of any guns as a condition of pre-trial release, and later as a condition of any plea deal, probation or entry into a diversion program.

Even offenders who have a previously clean criminal record and are charged with domestic violence would be affected. In those cases, Warren said, prosecutors will ask the court to force defendants to relinquish their firearms "where it’s necessary" to protect a victim from further harm while the case is pending. Defendants found not guilty and otherwise legally able to possess a gun would have their firearms returned.

Warren’s policy is a thoughtful approach to a societal problem. A Floridian is killed in a domestic violence incident every other day; between 2012 and 2016, there were 61 domestic violence homicides in Hillsborough, state data show. And in recent years, guns were used in up to half of all domestic-related homicides. It only makes sense to take these firearms out of the equation at least as these cases work their way through the courts.

Defendants face a range of restrictions on their movement and other freedoms during the course of a criminal case. This policy is no different than any other sanction pending trial, and the targeting of firearms relates directly to the risk of violence that is at the heart of troubled domestic relationships. Judges will make the final call after the defendant is heard, so there is no loss here of due process. Warren deserves credit for his creativity in taking on a growing societal problem. This policy also should make it safer for victims’ families and for law enforcement officers responding to domestic calls. The state attorney should keep the issue on the public radar by releasing regular updates on the policy and its results.