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Do gun ban laws help?

Editor's Note: In West Virginia, women who suffer violent deaths are more than half the time victims at the hands of their husbands, ex-husbands or boyfriends. Left behind are orphaned children and remnants of families that will never be the same. This is part two of a four-part series in which The Exponent Telegram examines causes of domestic violence and how it might be prevented.

by Jennifer Biller

STAFF WRITER

CLARKSBURG -- "Beat a woman, lose your guns. It's that simple."

That's part of a new ad slogan plastered across billboards, newspapers and televisions in North Central West Virginia, in an attempt to better inform the public about domestic violence and gun laws.

The federal gun ban laws, in relation to domestic violence, have been around since the mid-1990s. But, surprisingly, they are not commonly known.

The law states that it is illegal for a person to possess or purchase a firearm if he or she has been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor or has a restraining or protective order for domestic violence against them.

"I want to get the message out that if you beat your wife or girlfriend, you will lose your guns for life," said U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia Thomas Johnston.

Johnston launched the ad campaign as part of a national initiative to reduce firearms crimes, after evaluating crime statistics in this region.

"I came to the conclusion that domestic violence is a serious law enforcement issue in Northern West Virginia," Johnston said. "As one former police chief said, 'In West Virginia, our streets are pretty safe. It's our homes where the danger is.'"

Danger at home

From Nov. 17-19, 18 people called 911 for help with domestic violence situations, according to Harrison County Emergency Services records.

Locally this year, several domestic incidents have ended tragically, with guns used to murder women and children and the murderer committing suicide.

"The odd juxtaposition is, we have a low crime rate and not a lot of gun violence," Johnston said. "But we're among the highest in the nation for domestic violence homicides."

The Clarksburg Police Department spends a large part of its time dealing with domestic violence cases, Chief John Walker said. At another police department in the state, at least 70 percent of the officers' time is spent responding to domestic violence incidents, Johnston said.

When guns are within reach during domestic disputes, often the situation ends lethally.

The homicide risk for women increases more than three times when guns are present in the home, according to a 1997 study by the national Violence Policy Center.

While getting the guns out of abusers' hands may be a start, it alone can't stop the wave of domestic violence, said Sue Julian, team coordinator for the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

"In general, laws are never enough. What is needed, is consistent implementation by law enforcement, prosecuting attorneys and the judicial system," Julian said. "And a message from the community that it won't be tolerated: Men holding men accountable for gender-based violence."

Gun bans and penalties

Losing firearms privileges for life -- especially in a state where hunting is a common pastime -- is one way to deter domestic violence. But, it doesn't mean those convicted of domestic abuses aren't trying to get weapons.

Between 1994 and 2001 in the United States, 14 percent of rejected applications for firearm purchases were rejected because background checks revealed prior domestic violence convictions and/or restraining orders, according to The National Center for Victims of Crime.

Those violators caught with a gun can be sentenced up to 10 years in prison, with no opportunity for parole, and fined $250,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

"We are prosecuting cases under the laws," said Harrison County Prosecuting Attorney Joe Shaffer. "If they would just stop and think about losing their guns and that they won't ever be able to hunt again, I think it would have an effect."

When Shaffer worked as a defense attorney, he received one to two calls a week from clients trying to get their gun privileges reinstated. A lot of them were hunters, who didn't realize they would lose their gun rights when convicted, he said.

The ad campaign is one way to get the message across, Johnston said.

"I hope this information will be a deterrent to some of the domestic violence we see in our district," he said. "I hope it will make people think and encourage victims to come forward."

Staff writer Jennifer Biller can be reached at 626-1449 or by e-mail at jbiller@exponent-telegram.com