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Domestic violence bills fuel criticism over reach of gun rights revocations in Michigan

Beth LeBlanc, The Detroit News on

Published in News & Features

DETROIT — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed legislation Monday that would crack down on gun possession by domestic violence offenders, but would also result in gun ownership rights being revoked for Michiganians convicted of dozens of non-assaultive crimes.

The bills, spearheaded by state Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, would block domestic violence offenders from owning or possessing a firearm for eight years after completing their sentence, a change that partially mirrors federal prohibitions on gun ownership after a domestic violence misdemeanor. A similar state-level waiting period for misdemeanors involving a firearm was needed to make it possible for state and local law enforcement officials to enforce it, advocates said.

“We need to give our state level prosecutors and law enforcement the tools to enforce this kind of prohibition,” Chang said in a hearing earlier this fall.

“Survivors of domestic violence endure unimaginable pain and betrayal, and it is our responsibility to ensure that they have the peace of mind knowing that they’ll be protected from threats of gun violence at the hands of their abusers,” she added.

Opponents have argued the legislation uses too broad a definition of "recent domestic partner" when it seeks to qualify domestic violence-related misdemeanors that would qualify for an eight-year suspension of gun rights.

But the legislation also appears to reach much further than crimes involving domestic violence, causing one state lawmaker to dub the bills a "Trojan horse" for other restrictions on gun ownership.

"The Democrats drew this bill as broadly as possible to take gun rights away from as many people as possible. And then claimed it was all about domestic violence perpetrators," state Rep. Graham Filler, R-St. Johns, said Monday.

Chang countered that the focus of the legislation has always been on domestic violence offenses. The bills' changes to gun suspensions related to other misdemeanors and felonies, she said, were made "after consulting with law enforcement and domestic violence groups."

Monday's signing of the bills came after the Democratic-led House and Senate earlier this year passed bills implementing universal background check and registration for gun purchases; bills that would create a so-called red flag law to confiscate guns from those deemed a threat; and safe storage laws requiring the secure storage of firearms.

Whitmer signed those gun regulations into law in April.

Definition change expands gun suspensions

Senate Bill 471, signed into law Monday, makes the lion's share of changes that usher in the gun suspensions for domestic violence offenders in the state's "felon in possession" law, which police and prosecutors use as a guide when determining who is barred from having a gun.

But additional changes made to the bill alter the definition of a felony from a crime punishable by four or more years in prison to a crime punishable by more than one year in prison. The change means that more than 190 additional misdemeanors and felonies — many unrelated to domestic violence — would merit a three-year to five-year gun rights suspension, according to House and Senate fiscal agency analyses.

"With that definition change, many high-court misdemeanors, two-year felonies, etc. are added to the statute as well (implicating the three-year to five-year prohibition)," Sgt. Kristine Droste of the government relations section of the Michigan State Police said in a Monday email. "This definition of felony is consistent with the threshold for 'felony' found in many other sections of law."

Among the misdemeanors and felonies that legislative analyses indicate now will be potentially subject to a three- to five-year gun rights suspension: Certain lobbying and campaign finance violations, false statements on a veterans benefit application, certain gambling offenses, disorderly conduct at a funeral, possession of an aquatic prohibited species and knowingly allowing an MMA or boxing professional to compete against an amateur in an amateur contest.

The House Fiscal Agency analysis indicates that since the changes aren't part of any given sentence, "they would apply to all those whose sentences have not been completed when the bill takes effect, in addition to those convicted or sentenced after that date."

During debate on the bills, many lawmakers in support or opposition focused on the perceived strengths or weaknesses of the definitions and penalties related to domestic violence offenses. Few drew attention to the accompanying change in the definition of a felony that would open the door to nearly 200 additional offenses that could result in a weapons suspension.


But on Monday, a few sounded off on the change.

Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, said the legislation goes beyond how federal law would handle gun rights suspensions related to domestic violence or non-assaultive misdemeanors.

"The majority party was so intent on smashing through a bunch of agenda items that every concern fell on deaf ears," Runestad said.

Michigan Open Carry, a gun owners rights organization, opposed the legislation in committee, calling it a "bait and switch" that offered an overly broad definition of "recent domestic partner." The group also argued the bills went beyond domestic violence offenses to include new three- to five-year restrictions on dozens of non-assaultive misdemeanors.

"Federal courts are already striking down prohibitions based on non-violent felonies," Tom Lambert of Michigan Open Carry testified in committee in September. "How are courts going to view non-violent misdemeanors?”

What's involved in 8-year gun ban

With the Monday signing of the bills, Michigan joins more than 30 states that have adopted a state-level ban on gun ownership after a conviction on a domestic violence offense, Chang said. The bills are set to take effect in late February.

The bills, which included sponsors Sen. Sue Shink, D-Northfield Township, and Rep. Amos O'Neal, D-Saginaw, passed largely along party lines in the Democratic-controlled Legislature. Versions of the domestic violence bills have been introduced in the past three legislative sessions, but gained no traction under Republican control of the House and Senate.

When it comes to domestic violence offenses, the three-bill package requires an eight-year waiting period between the end of a sentence and when an offender can again purchase and possess a firearm. The eight-year ban includes domestic violence misdemeanors and certain misdemeanors where domestic violence is involved, such as stalking, vulnerable adult abuse, destruction of property and sexual abuse.

Individuals who violated the eight-year waiting period could be charged with a felony that could result in up to five years in prison and/or a fine of up to $5,000.

Whitmer signed the bills Monday at a YWCA in Kalamazoo that runs a shelter and services for domestic violence survivors.

"These bills are based on a simple idea: If you've been found guilty in court for violently assaulting your partner, you should not be able to access a deadly weapon that could be used to threaten, harm of kill them," Whitmer said Monday.

"It's just common sense," the Democratic governor added.

O'Neal noted it had been a long road for the bills to see final passage.

“It only makes sense that this law is on the books to keep guns out of the hands of violent criminals," O'Neal said in a statement.


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