By SHEILA WANG • Standard-Examiner staff
Last year, domestic violence led to 26 gun deaths in Utah. That accounts for 60 percent of all reported domestic violence-related deaths, according to data from the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition (UDVC).
Federal law restricts a convicted domestic abuser from having a firearm, but that law is difficult to enforce.
A misdemeanor domestic violence conviction, according to federal law, generally involves two things: the existence of a domestic relationship and a use or attempted use of force.
In absence of either condition, the Bureau of Criminal Identification — the branch of the Utah Department of Public Safety in charge of gun background checks — cannot deny a firearm purchase based on domestic violence.
Under the federal definition, a “domestic relationship” means the abuser is a guardian and/or cohabitant. A criminal conviction for violence against a sibling or a dating partner, for example, don’t necessarily prohibit a person from buying a gun.
Dating violence among non-cohabitants is quite common in Utah, said Teresa Brechlin, violence prevention manager with Utah Department of Health.
Last year, more than 1,500 people in Utah were denied gun purchases after failing background checks, according to the BCI records. Of those, 132 people failed specifically because of a domestic violence conviction — about 8 percent of overall denials, the BCI reports.
Meanwhile, 352 people failed due to “state prohibition” in 2017, an increase of nearly 50 percent from the previous year.
The jump is attributed to a 2017 change in the state statute, said Lance Tyler, supervisor of the Brady Bill division at BCI. Utah expanded on the federal domestic violence gun restriction by adding any convictions for assault or aggravated assault against a cohabitant, as well as protective orders or child protective orders.
The state breaks down the reasons for denials into nine categories as the column chart shows below.
As you can see in the chart, “state prohibitor” was the most common reason to deny a firearm purchase. That refers to anyone prohibited from possessing a firearm under Utah laws, including domestic violence-related assaults, juvenile felony adjudications and court-ordered restrictions to firearms (the latter two categories would be found in protective orders databases.)
Nationwide, a misdemeanor conviction for domestic violence is the third biggest reason for firearm purchase denials. Between November 1998 and January 2018, the FBI denied attempted gun purchases by more than 138,000 people based on domestic violence records, according to the FBI.
GAPS IN THE SYSTEM
Utah’s law prohibiting domestic abusers from owning a gun doesn’t necessarily translate to fewer firearms in the wrong hands.
While most states use a national background check system compiled and managed by the FBI, Utah is among the 13 states using its own system. The feds use a combination of three databases; Utah draws from those three as well as from an additional six state-maintained systems.
Even though Utah draws information from more places, a database tracking gun-prohibiting domestic violence charges doesn’t exist, Tyler said.
That means the background check technician with BCI needs to determine independently whether to deny a firearm purchase for domestic violence.
“It is a lot of work, and we spend more time trying to gather all the elements needed for domestic violence than all the other categories of information combined,” Tyler said.
The surest way to know is if the FBI databases flag a domestic violence conviction — it immediately prohibits the person from buying a firearm.
If the record is flagged from any state databases, the BCI operator has to gather more information.
“Many charges may fall under the domestic violence category, though,” Tyler said. “Assault, battery, violation of a protective (order), disorderly conduct, child abuse, interruption of a communication device, lewdness and lewdness involving a child, unlawful detention, and threatening or using dangerous weapon in a fight or quarrel, to name the most common in Utah.”
But not all those charges would ban a person from buying or possessing a gun.
The BCI technician must figure out case-by-case whether a domestic relationship exists between the offender and the victim in the flagged record. The technician first contacts the corresponding police agency departments for incident reports. If the domestic relationship is proven there, BCI will then go to the courts to examine the other requisite condition for domestic violence —- the use or attempted use of force element.
For those domestic violence convictions that do not meet federal requirement, BCI will then consider the newly-added state statute on domestic violence to determine whether to allow the purchase.
“We choose the most restrictive one we find,” Tyler said.
If the records prove a domestic abuser attempted to buy a gun, BCI passes the information to the FBI’s databases, ensuring the person couldn’t pass a background check in all 50 states.
DANGER IN UTAH
“Domestic violence is a pretty prevalent problem in Utah,” Brechlin, with the Utah Department of Health, said.
A 2016 survey by the by the state department of health found 14 percent of adult Utahns have been hit or hurt by their intimate partners.
Meanwhile, 62 percent of all domestic violence homicides in the past eight years involved the use of a firearm.
“The background check doesn’t go far enough,” Brechlin said, pointing out that there are many ways domestic abusers can get their hands on firearms without a background check — getting a gun through a private seller or a friend, for example.
On top of that, Brechlin said there are plenty of cases when domestic abusers are already own guns. Utah doesn’t have any statute dictating the surrender of firearms for people who may have purchased a gun legally before a criminal conviction.
In Weber County, the sheriff’s office checks for restrictions on a case-by-case basis, according to Lt. Matt Jensen.
Deputies confiscate firearms when they come across any restricted person in possession of a firearms, but it’s primarily a retroactive discovery — they’re already in trouble for something else.
There is a clear connection between domestic violence and mass shootings, said Qudsia Raja, policy director at The National Domestic Violence Hotline. Both are most often “fueled by the desire for power and control.”
The number of Utahns — women in particular — killed as a result of domestic violence has been the source of statewide concern. In June 2015, a Roy man murdered his wife and two children before killing himself. In June 2017, Memorez Rackley of Sandy was attacked by an ex-partner, whom she’d reported to police on many occasions for stalking and harassment.
Her assailant, Jeremy Patterson, 32, shot and killed Rackley and her 6-year-old son and wounded two people who were trying to help Rackley and her boys escape. Rackley’s 11-year-old son was also injured but survived.
After the attack, Patterson fatally shot himself.
Every year, about 80 Utah children see their mothers killed or attacked, according to the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition.
Utah records about one domestic violence homicide a month, the Utah Health Department reports.
Contact reporter Sheila Wang at 801-625-4252 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Facebook @JournalistSheilaW or on Twitter @SheilaWang7.