Stricter PFA gun laws help victims, experts say

New laws related to domestic abuse make weapon requirements stricter, but victims safer, local experts say.

In 2013, a local woman was beaten by her ex-boyfriend who then put her in a car with himself and set it on fire, killing them both. There was a history of abuse between the couple, and the woman had a Protection From Abuse (PFA) order against the man, according to a recent countywide review of domestic violence cases.

Act 79 was signed into law in October, adding more weapons requirements to the PFA order, according to Lycoming County Judge Joy McCoy who presides over domestic relations.

The decision to immediately take guns out of the defendant’s possession lies with McCoy, or whichever judge oversees the initial PFA hearing.

A case is made by the plaintiff and if McCoy believes they have been abused, a PFA order is granted. At the first hearing, McCoy said she doesn’t have to take weapons if she doesn’t see the need.

But, according to the new law, which takes effect today (April 10), after the second hearing, weapons must be taken. Until now, this also had been up to the judge’s discretion, McCoy said.

Often, PFA cases attempt to come to some type of agreement before the second hearing, in which case the defendant may be able to keep their weapons, should the judge allow it, according to McCoy.

No guns to friends, family

In addition, whereas previously defendants could have relinquished weapons to a friend or family member, the new law dictates they now may only give weapons to law enforcement, their lawyer or an armory that will keep them secure, McCoy said.

“It takes away the ability to give the weapon to family and friends,” McCoy said.

A 2018 report from the Lycoming County Domestic Violence Review Team found that 42 percent of the county’s 19 homicide cases since 1996 had a PFA order filed. Of those cases, a gunshot was the cause of death in 75 percent, and none of the cases required that guns be relinquished.

“Easy access to a gun creates a situation that otherwise wouldn’t have happened if there hadn’t been a gun there,” McCoy said.

Support for victims

The passage of stricter PFA laws is a show of support for victims, said Amber Morningstar, program director for Wise Options at the YWCA.  

“Over the years in our very own community, numerous victims have been seriously injured or killed when firearms were present. Abusive partners have also attempted suicide,” Morningstar said.

She argued that a person who is intent on harming innocent people “should not have access to a lethal weapon.”

Despite stricter requirements, McCoy said it’s no guarantee that the violence will stop. “Even if (you) relinquish your guns … if you’re a gun enthusiast, you’re going to be able to get a gun.”

The woman who was burned to death by her ex-boyfriend previously took out a PFA against him because he beat her with a pistol, said McCoy, who saw the woman in her courtroom shortly before her death.

“He obviously had used weapons, but he didn’t need a weapon to kill her,” McCoy said.

Automated follow-ups

To track individuals ordered to give up their weapons, a new statewide system will monitor if defendants have turned in their weapons. If no weapons are logged, it will automatically send alerts to local law enforcement to notify them.

Until now, McCoy said the process simply required they be sent a notice to turn in weapons, but gave no follow-up procedure to make sure it was done.

“I’m sure there are plenty of defendants out there that have their weapons and shouldn’t,” McCoy said.

Are PFAs increasing?

PFA requests are first sent to Wise Options at the YWCA. The domestic abuse recovery center received over 400 PFAs in the past year, Morningstar said, adding that this is about 70 more than last year and that the numbers have steadily risen.

However, this does not mean that the abuse rate has increased, Morningstar said.

“We don’t believe that domestic violence is more prevalent now,” she said, citing national statistics. “I like to attribute it to community awareness.”

Wise Options has increased its community outreach over the years, participating in awareness events and a variety of social gatherings including parades and Williamsport Welcomes the World, Morningstar said.

Abuse of the system

During her time on the bench McCoy has seen people use a PFA order for their own gain. Anger during a messy break-up. An attempt to gain custody of children. Retaliation for being served their own PFA order.

“It’s frustrating,” McCoy said. “You definitely get people who use it as a tool.”

During the first hearing McCoy has little to go on but the plaintiff’s statement. No evidence is presented.

“If they say the right words, they are more than likely going to get their temporary (seperation),” McCoy said, adding that she often lays more weight on what restrictions she will add, such as custody of children and taking weapons.

At the second hearing the defendant is able to present evidence in a defense.

“In 10 days, everything I did, based just on what the plaintiff told me, can be undone,” McCoy said.

While not a perfect system, McCoy said she believes it does what it’s designed to do – “get immediate relief when there is a threat,” she said.

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