Proposal To Ban People From Buying Guns During Divorce Gets Pushback

The bill's author is adding language to make it more specifically target domestic abusers in his state.

WASHINGTON -- The Georgia lawmaker behind a controversial new bill to ban people going through divorce proceedings in the state from buying guns has responded to pushback by adding language to more narrowly target people with a history of domestic abuse. 

The original measure would have made it a misdemeanor for anyone involved in a divorce proceeding to purchase a gun, unless he or she had permission from the judge overseeing the case. The bill wouldn't affect the possession of any guns the couple may have owned previously.

State Sen. Michael Rhett (D-Marietta), who introduced the bill earlier this month, told The Huffington Post on Wednesday that because of "some pushback and the need for bipartisan support," he has decided to include language adding that a person going through a divorce proceeding would be banned from purchasing a gun if a protective order is taken out against him or her, or if there is a history of domestic violence. He did not immediately respond to a request for more details. 

Felons, people convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors and people subject to permanent domestic violence protective orders are not allowed under federal law to buy or own guns.

However, a state needs equivalent legislation on the books in order to adequately enforce those restrictions, and Georgia does not explicitly ban people who have been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor or who are subject to a protective order from owning or buying firearms.

That makes implementation of the federal restrictions dicey, said Allison Smith, the director of public policy at the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence. While she appreciates "the spirit of the bill," Smith said it's far more important that Georgia first passes state laws to match federal restrictions on domestic abusers' gun ownership.  

"We know that the combination of domestic violence and firearms is very deadly. However, we respect the rights of law-abiding citizens to own firearms," she said. "The bill that is being proposed, really, is a little off the mark in that it doesn't hit at the route of the problem of domestic violence offenders having firearms."

Between 2003 and 2012, 283 women were shot to death by an intimate partner in Georgia, according to FBI data reviewed by the Center for American Progress and the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. In 2011 alone, more than half of homicides related to domestic violence in the state were committed with a gun, the report found.  

Rhett said he considers the bill a first step in opening up a conversation about domestic violence. He said he was inspired to file the bill because of local prosecutor April Ross, who became paralyzed from the chest down after her estranged husband shot her last April.

"You can't eliminate every bad scenario," Ross told Atlanta news station WSB-TV last week. "But you can certainly reduce the number of opportunities someone has to hurt someone when they're leaving a relationship.”

The proposal is unlikely to get far in Georgia's conservative legislature. The state's governor last year signed legislation that allows people with concealed carry permits to bring their guns in parks, bars, cabarets, school zones and airport shops.

Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA, said Rhett's original measure seemed "clearly unconstitutional," both under the Second Amendment and Georgia's constitution.

"Divorce is surely a tumultuous process, deeply distressing for many, and leading to violence for a few," he said. "But that can't be a reason to deny all divorcing people a constitutional right."  

Jerry Henry, executive director of pro-gun group Georgia Carry, raised the point that the original bill could have prevented a potential victim from obtaining a gun for self-defense. 

Rhett said his bill is intended to focus on an aggressor and not a potential victim. 

Ross told WSB-TV that she supports the bill, but is open to a compromise.

"It's not just about, 'he can't get a gun, he doesn't have the right to get a gun,'" she said. "What I’m saying is put in that extra step that may have saved someone else's life."