The following editorial originally appeared in The Seattle Times:
Domestic violence is considered one of the most predictable and preventable violent crimes, one that too often results in death. In Washington, as in other states, laws have been created to help safeguard victims and try to prevent the dozens of deaths that occur each year. One such law allows a court to take firearms away from those charged with domestic violence or stalking.
But recent interpretations of the law by some Washington appeals court judges are putting more and more people at risk, mostly women.
According to a story by Kelsey Turner of Investigate-West, judges in Pierce and Cowlitz counties have stopped enforcing the state’s firearms-surrender law in civil personal-protection order cases, based on an interpretation that stems from a 2019 Kitsap County case. The defendant, charged with second-degree assault against his girlfriend, successfully argued that being forced to relinquish his firearms would violate his Fourth Amendment right against improper search and seizure and his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.
Judges in Division II of the Washington Court of Appeals have agreed, and have rejected efforts by lower courts and prosecutors to take firearms away from suspects charged in domestic violence cases.
That is an untenable fact, especially in a state that claims to care about the health, safety and rights of women, and that has championed sensible laws on domestic violence and gun ownership. The Legislature should make this issue a priority in 2024 by addressing the constitutionality of firearms seizures and self-incrimination.
There were 61,682 criminal domestic-violence incidents reported to law enforcement in Washington in 2022, 14,553 of which were violations of protection or no-contact orders, according to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. More than 60 of those domestic-violence incidents resulted in a homicide.
A bill sponsored by state Rep. Lauren Davis, D-Shoreline, herself a domestic violence survivor, expanded laws regarding domestic violence. House Bill 1715 strengthened civil protection orders, expanded GPS monitoring of offenders, created a right to counsel for victims and requires law enforcement agencies to create a protocol by which family members or intimate partners are notified when a suspect’s firearms are returned.
Studies have shown a greater likelihood that a person in possession of a firearm will use it after their victim files domestic violence charges. As stated in HB 1715, the risk of domestic violence homicide is the greatest when a victim is ending the relationship and throughout legal proceedings.
The experiences and facts surrounding domestic violence should inform any interpretation of the law. Lives depend on sensible approaches to the adjudication of domestic violence cases, not a disregard for those who live in fear.