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By Jonathan Yglesias and Justin Lingenfelter

Last week, Gov. Ralph Northam took historic action to sign several gun safety bills into law.

This came in the wake of a tragic mass shooting in Virginia Beach, followed by a special session on firearms that concluded within three hours with no action taken and the emergence of a dangerous movement to establish “sanctuary cities” for gun owners in Virginia.

Many of the measures enacted by the governor employ evidence-informed public health strategies intended to reduce gun violence and cultivate community safety.

Among those efforts are Del. Mike Mullin’s HB 1004 and Sen. Janet Howell’s SB 479 which address the rising rates of intimate partner homicide in Virginia – 65 percent of which are committed with the use of a firearm.

These bills build on 2016 legislation, passed under a Republican-led legislature, that first recognized the threat that firearms pose to sexual and domestic violence victims who are seeking protection from their abuser. However, since its passage in 2016, only a handful of localities and courts in Virginia have been able to successfully implement the law.

Many advocates cite the major barriers to implementation having been a lack of awareness about new laws, a lack of guidance, tools or resources available to courts, law enforcement and prosecutors and the reality that without structure or process, the burden fell squarely on the shoulders of victims to report their abusers who were still in possession of firearms during a time of escalating violence and heightened lethality. 

Now, in 2020, HB 1004 and SB 479 provide fixes that remove the burden of establishing safety from victims and shift this to Virginia’s courts and law enforcement.

The bills outline new uniform procedures that require individuals subject to any 2-year protective order (family abuse protective orders or act of violence protective orders) to relinquish access to their firearms within 24 hours and to certify to the court that they have done so for the duration of the order. It is a simple but radical pivot that will support effective implementation of the law in addition to bringing Virginia into alignment with national best practices in intimate partner homicide prevention.

The governor has worked in coalition alongside the advocacy community, including legislators and survivors of violence, to offer important amendments to these bills that we believe will increase victim safety.

One of the more notable changes addresses an individual’s willful noncompliance with the firearm certification process — changing the criminal penalty for noncompliance from a Class 1 misdemeanor to contempt of court.  While this change may seem small on paper, it will ultimately save lives, providing judges with the power to act in the interest of a victim by swiftly and proportionally responding to an individual who willfully defies court orders.

As a matter of victim safety, courts need to have the power to respond to and resolve noncompliance in an urgent manner. In the bill’s original form, a Class 1 misdemeanor would have placed the burden on law enforcement, a victim or other citizen to request a warrant from a magistrate for noncompliance.

Advocates agree that this would have not only created barriers to holding offenders accountable for noncompliance but would have added significant time to a process where victim risk is elevated and where a matter of hours and minutes can also be a matter of life and death. Contempt of court allows judges to use their power in applying appropriate responses meant to establish accountability while ensuring victim safety.

Now comes the hard part. It is ultimately incumbent upon Virginia’s courts and systems partners — including judges, prosecutors, local law enforcement and coordinated community response teams lead by sexual and domestic violence advocates — to ensure that the law is properly implemented and enforced and that safety for victims is central to implementation.

The justice system is inherently adversarial and was not designed to be a trauma-informed place for victims of violence. But the more we trust victims and survivors to know what’s best for their safety and for the safety of their families and communities, the more our systems and everyone within it can work to establish interventions that seek healing while addressing true accountability.

Thankfully, in addition to our 65 sexual and domestic violence agencies across Virginia, we have a robust infrastructure of allies and systems partners who are well poised to support community implementation teams and to work at the local and state levels to build and sustain practices that will prevent future occurrences of intimate partner homicide. 

Jonathan Yglesias is the policy director for the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance. Justin Lingenfelter is the court advocate and LAP coordinator at New Directions Center, Inc., a nonprofit organization in Staunton that provides support and advocacy to those affected by domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking and stalking.