Consider the case of Wood, the fugitive who allegedly shot at his girlfriend. Even if his prior domestic violence conviction had triggered the federal gun ban—it appears to have fallen through a loophole—no agency in northern New Mexico would have rushed to seize his weapons. At the Santa Fe Police Department, “unless it is written and spelled out in the order for protection, they do not take the firearm,” the department’s domestic and sexual violence liaison, Carol Horwitz, says.
So the gun ban exists mainly as an idea.
“If I say to an officer, ‘seize the weapon,’ what does that mean? Am I giving them the right to search the house? Can they go into a locked cabinet? There are a lot of issues in taking a weapon,” Margaret Kegel, former domestic relations hearing officer for the First Judicial District Court in Santa Fe, says. “A lot of times we do it anyway. Then we get a call from law enforcement, ‘Now what do we do?’”
As improbable as it sounds, police claim they have no place to put confiscated weapons from domestic violence cases.
Why not find a place to put them?
“It’s a resource issue,” Sharon Pino, Gov. Bill Richardson’s appointed domestic violence czar, says. That’s easier to believe after seeing Pino’s small, underground office in the Public Employees Retirement Association building. She has no staff; her summer intern leaves soon.
Pino says security consultants advised her that proper seized-weapon storage would require building costly climate-controlled regional warehouses under constant guard.
Denver-based National Coalition Against Domestic Violence Executive Director Rita Smith has heard that excuse before.
“People don’t store their guns at home like that, so I’m not sure why the police department should be forced to do it. I think it’s an easy way to say, ‘I can’t,’” Smith says. “I really believe that if we take the guns away [from offenders], we will be preventing some horrible tragedies.”
Local prosecutors say their federal counterparts bear responsibility for enforcing federal gun-control laws. US Attorney for New Mexico Gregory Fouratt says he generally relies on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to bring such cases to his office. Local police could tip off his office to convicted wife beaters carrying illegal weapons, but not all officers are trained to do so.
According to Fouratt, New Mexico’s federal prosecutors have opened 39 investigations under the law banning firearms for misdemeanor domestic violence convicts since 2000. Charges were brought in 21 cases, resulting in 15 convictions, with three cases pending.
David Iglesias, who held the US attorney position from 2001 through 2006, says the feds are too busy to chase armed domestic violence convicts.
“There are 4,000 or so federal laws on the books. US attorneys can’t possibly enforce all 4,000. We have to pick and choose,” Iglesias tells SFR. “Misdemeanors, by definition, are lower priority than felonies.”
Fouratt rejects that argument. “To the extent that was ever the philosophy at the office, it’s not now,” he says. In fact, Fouratt says, last month he sent a letter to every district attorney in the state asking them not to cut plea deals that could let domestic abusers benefit from loopholes in the federal gun ban.
State lawmakers have shown little interest in closing any gaps in the federal law. Judge Vigil blames Second Amendment absolutists. “Any time you talk about limiting weapons you get a very big reaction…so it’s hard to get the legislation through,” he says.
Meanwhile, New Mexico’s interpretation of the federal law remains relatively lax, according to Sherry Spitzer, associate director of the Albuquerque-based New Mexico Coalition Against Domestic Violence. For example, former New Mexico Attorney General Hal Stratton created some confusion with a 1988 opinion permitting some convicted felons to purchase and carry guns despite the federal ban. In a 2006 ruling, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals called Stratton’s opinion “erroneous” and “troubling.”
Interpretations aside, the law poses logistical problems, Vigil says: “You can have it on the books and say, ‘You cannot possess a gun.’ But how do you enforce it? Unless you conduct daily searches of the person’s house—or you stumble on it.”