TAMPA — Saying too many defendants accused of domestic violence still have guns, Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren is trying a new effort to disarm them.
Warren announced an initiative Wednesday that he said will fill in gaps in enforcing existing laws. His new policy goes a step further, though, by asking judges to force defendants who have been charged but not convicted to give up their guns.
"Every time we allow a domestic abuser access to a firearm, we put that abuser's partner, our law enforcement officers and the entire community in danger," he said. "We don't need to wait for Tallahassee or Washington to act because we have laws on the books that can protect domestic violence victims. It's about time we started aggressively enforcing those laws, and that's exactly what this office is going to do."
Federal law prohibits anyone who has been convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from owning a gun. In addition, Florida bars gun ownership by any person convicted of a felony — including domestic violence — or who is subject to a domestic violence civil injunction.
Enforcement of those laws has been inconsistent, Warren said. Under his new stepped-up policy, prosecutors will receive a "risk assessment" conducted by law enforcement officials who interview victims and offenders to determine if the suspect has access to a firearm. Law enforcement officials will send that assessment to Warren's office, which will do a background check to see if the offender is legally prohibited from owning a firearm.
At the defendants' initial appearance or bail hearing, prosecutors will seek relinquishment of any guns as a condition of pre-trial release and, later, as a condition in any plea agreement, probation or entry into a diversion program.
But prosecutors will just as aggressively go after the guns of at least some offenders who have clean criminal records but have been arrested on a domestic violence charge. In those cases, Warren said, prosecutors will ask the court to order defendants to relinquish firearms "where it's necessary to protect the victim from further harm" while the cases are pending. If the defendant is found not guilty and not otherwise legally prohibited from possessing a gun, the order would be lifted
Warren pointed to some grim statistics to bolster the need for the new initiative.
A Floridian is killed in a domestic violence incident every other day, and between 2012 and 2016, there were 61 domestic violence homicides in Hillsborough County, Florida Department of Law Enforcement data show. Between 2010 and 2016, guns were used in as many as half of all domestic violence homicides, according to the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Warren cited the 2013 case of Brianna Anderson, a 22-year-old Tampa woman who was shot in the head by her boyfriend, a convicted felon named Jamar Silas, in front of her 3-year-old son. She was eight months pregnant.
"He should not have had a gun," Warren said. "This situation is far too common."
Warren also noted the connection between domestic violence and mass shootings.
Between 2009 and 2016, 54 percent of mass shootings in the United States were related to domestic or family violence, and about a third involved a shooter who was legally prohibited from owning a firearm, according to the nonprofit group Everytown for Gun Safety.
Warren said his office developed the policy after conferring with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and the police departments in Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City.
"The success of this initiative starts with our law enforcement partners," he said.
The Sheriff's Office will continue to work closely with Warren's office on the effort, Col. Donna Lusczynski said Wednesday.
Asked to comment on the new policy, the National Rifle Association's Florida lobbyist and spokeswoman Marion Hammer said Warren should be wary of overstepping his legal bounds.
"I suspect State Attorney Warren knows that he has no legal authority to regulate firearms or the possession of firearms in any manner except as specifically authorized in statute by the Legislature," Hammer said in an email. "Surely he understands that he can't cross that line or try to move the line."
Domestic violence victim advocates who flanked Warren at the news conference praised the effort.
"Getting guns out of the hands of domestic abusers will keep victims and their children safer and will also keep all of us safer," said Mindy Murphy, president and chief executive officer of the Spring of Tampa Bay.
Contact Tony Marrero at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.