Nikki Elias did everything right. She filed for divorce from her abusive husband, Ian, in 2008 — a move that prompted a bitter, years-long custody fight over their two daughters. Ian started threatening her, and, given his violent past, she did what victims of domestic abuse are advised to do to protect themselves. She changed her daily routine, took the girls out of their school in Portland, Oregon, and filed for a restraining order.
Nikki said in her restraining order petition that Ian was “obsessed with” his collection of guns; he would post photos and videos of himself on Facebook and YouTube carrying firearms and talking about their custody dispute. Each restraining order and protective order, as well as their civil parenting case, required Ian to give up his guns, but officials never made sure he did so.
In 2014, six years after she filed for divorce, Nikki was living on her own with the girls, at that point 7 and 8, in Southwest Portland. She and Ian were still arguing over custody, and he still had his guns. On a Monday morning in November, Ian broke through Nikki’s front door carrying a gun. Neighbors told the police they heard five or six shots and saw Ian come out with the girls, leaving Nikki dead. He took the children to his house across the city. As a police tactical squad surrounded his Northeast Portland home, he went to the rear porch and fatally shot himself. The girls were physically unharmed.
“She sought and was given all the protection the court has to offer. She did everything we like to think of as ‘right’ to protect herself and her children from Ian’s abuse. In the end, none of our efforts were enough,” Multnomah County Circuit Judge Amy Holmes Hehn, who presided over the Eliases’ custody case, told The Oregonian at the time. “The grim reality is that when an abuser wants to murder his intimate partner, he’ll likely find a way to do it.”
But Ian should not have been able to kill Nikki the way he did — he was supposed to surrender his guns when her restraining order against him was granted. And though it’s not up to the court to enforce restraining orders, the efforts to protect Nikki fell short of what the law permits to ensure that domestic abusers don’t have access to one of the most lethal weapons of abuse.
The consensus among law enforcement, researchers, advocates for domestic violence victims and most gun-rights groups is that keeping guns out of the hands of abusers is the best way to prevent them from shooting and killing their victims. But enforcing the laws already on the books requires extensive coordination and human resources; in the Elias case, the police knew Ian had guns, but with 15 new restraining orders filed in the county every day, they simply couldn’t keep up.
Public outcry over Nikki’s killing catalyzed efforts that were already underway in Portland to recover guns from known abusers. Portland is one of the first major cities to create a process for enforcing these laws, and its innovative, multi-agency approach is seeing some early results. As of June 24, Portland had verified that in 400 of 497 cases, abusers suspected of having a gun were in compliance with the law. But the program is still young and needs further evaluation.
Agreeing on a process required the commitment of a group of top officials, including the district attorney, the city commissioner, the family judge in the circuit courts and the police chief, plus the investment of considerable time and resources. “There’s no way we could do this work if the team didn’t work so well together and we weren’t all so dedicated to it,” Senior Deputy District Attorney Traci Anderson said.
The fatal link between guns and domestic abuse is well-established, and laws barring domestic abusers from possessing guns are far less controversial than other gun restrictions.1 But these laws are rarely enforced, so it’s unclear what real effect they have. Portland is finding out.
Ten women were killed by their intimate partners with a gun in Oregon in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There’s no perfect national count of these deaths, but multiple sources indicate that intimate partner violence accounts for about 40 percent to 45 percent of all gun homicides of women (those ages 15 and up) and that about 700 to 800 women die in these incidents each year. Another 5 percent to 7 percent, about 100 women a year, are killed by other family members. (For men, intimate partner incidents account for just 2 percent of gun homicides, or fewer than 200 deaths each year.)2
Although these data sources treat domestic violence as a fairly broad category, the law doesn’t. The federal definition is strict, and state definitions vary, leading to a fuzzy understanding of what legally constitutes “domestic violence.” Can it occur within only married couples? What about children? Is it still domestic violence if, as was the case with the Eliases, the couple is divorced? Is abuse within a dating relationship considered domestic violence? What if the couple is no longer dating?
There’s a burgeoning movement to expand the federal definition of domestic violence, which currently encompasses only couples who are married, are living together or have a child. Activists are calling for an elimination of the “boyfriend loophole,” whereby abusers in intimate relationships without legal ties to their victims can skirt many of the prohibitions that other domestic abusers face, most significantly a ban on buying or possessing guns.
Since 1938, all convicted felons — including domestic abusers — have been barred from having guns. Legislation in 1994 and 1996 extended the scope of the law, also prohibiting people under restraining orders for domestic abuse, as well as people convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors, from having guns.
There is good evidence behind keeping guns out of the hands of abusers. Research shows that at least two-thirds3 of intimate partner gun homicides occur in situations where the man had been physically abusive toward the woman, and that a female victim is five times likelier to die at the hands of her abuser if the abuser owns a gun. And even if he doesn’t shoot his partner, an abuser with a gun often will use it to intimidate her.
It’s important to note that not all victims of domestic abuse file restraining orders or report their abusers. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 40 percent of incidents go unreported. From a policy standpoint, there’s little the legal or judicial system can do without documentation of abuse.
Experts say that the dramatic correlation between gun possession and women being killed by a domestic abuser implies that the most effective way to reduce these deaths would be to close the “boyfriend loophole” and to better enforce the ban on domestic abusers possessing guns.
But although the federal ban is a good starting point, it’s up to states to back it up with their own enforcement — and there’s little consistency in where states stand on this. A February report from the groups Prosecutors Against Gun Violence and the Consortium for Risk-Based Firearms Policy showed that less than half of states have explicit laws requiring, or even authorizing, law enforcement to take firearms from people who have domestic-abuse-related restraining orders against them. (Since the report was published, Virginia and Connecticut have passed laws expanding the scope of gun bans for domestic abusers. This table reflects the most recent legislation. It also reflects that unlike other states, Washington requires law enforcement to take guns from domestic abusers in some situations and merely authorizes it in others.)
Even states that do authorize or require guns to be taken from domestic abusers are strapped for resources when it comes to enforcing those requirements. California, for example, would seem to be strict on the issue, but a study of a gun-recovery program in San Mateo and Butte counties revealed how resource-intensive — and therefore unrealistic — it can be for law enforcement agencies to enforce these policies. Portland, one of the first major cities to adopt one of these programs, may have found a way to make it more sustainable.
The wood-and-glass door of Room 804 of the Multnomah County Courthouse bears the name of its chief occupant, “Rod Underhill / District Attorney.” A second plaque directly to its right reads “Victim’s Assistance Program / Domestic Violence Unit.” The office itself makes clear how important this work is — the walls are lined with brochure boxes loaded with pamphlets that explain the county’s domestic and family violence services, as well as fliers for NO MORE, a campaign to raise awareness of the issue.
According to Multnomah County’s Domestic Violence Unit, about 1 in 7 women in the county that’s home to Portland are abused by an intimate partner every year; many of the city’s elected leaders made their names by targeting the problem. Underhill’s dedication to the issue is well known. Although he ran unopposed for the seat in 2012, he campaigned, advertising his history of work for the district attorney’s office, where he had focused on advocating on behalf of domestic violence victims since 1987.
This dedication from the DA’s office and from officials in other parts of Portland’s city government led to a memorandum of understanding among three key agencies, signed in September 2014, to enforce getting guns out of the hands of domestic abusers. The memo lays out the process in step-by-step detail and clarifies which agency is responsible for each step.
When Nikki Elias first filed for a restraining order against Ian, she told the court that he had guns. The restraining order that was served to Ian stated clearly that it was unlawful for him to possess or buy a firearm. But he did not turn over his guns, and police never checked to make sure he did — police said they didn’t have the resources to follow up on every case, and others were higher priority.
Contributing to the problem was the poor state of the court’s organizational methods: ancient artifacts of manila folders and filing cabinets, along with a computer program from the ’70s that lacked the latest and greatest technology like drop-down menus or even a cursor. That made it hard to imagine a realistic way of keeping track of people under restraining orders who might have a gun, let alone deploying officers to make sure they gave it up.
That court filing system got an upgrade in May 2014, and Maureen McKnight, Multnomah County’s chief family court judge, recognized an opportunity. The new system made it easier to track restraining orders and share information, so McKnight worked with the city commissioner and the district attorney’s office to come up with a better process for getting abusers to hand over their guns. Officials restructured the city’s budget to allow the police department to dedicate three full-time officers to enforcing these laws, but this took a while; in the meantime, cases like Nikki’s were still falling through the cracks.
Now, when a restraining order says an abuser has a gun, within 48 hours he is expected to turn over the firearm to police or to someone who passes a background check; sell it to a licensed dealer; or sign an affidavit saying he doesn’t have a gun at all. The Multnomah County Circuit Court keeps track of these restraining orders and sends any cases in which the abuser hasn’t yet complied to the Police Bureau and the DA’s office. An officer then contacts the respondent by phone or letter to notify him of the requirements. He can go to one of three official locations in the city to turn over the firearm. If there is no response, the Police Bureau notifies the DA’s office to determine whether an arrest warrant for contempt should be issued. The DA can then prosecute any contempt charges, even if authorities can’t recover a weapon.
1 in 7 women in Multnomah County are abused by an intimate partner
The idea of confronting people with documented histories of violence and asking them to give up their guns may seem like it’s engineered to end in bloodshed, but Sgt. Martin Padilla, who oversees the Police Bureau’s piece of the process, said they haven’t had any clashes since the program began in September 2014. Their method — in which they write letters, make phone calls and reach out in as many passive ways as possible — aims to defuse any ire before an in-person meeting takes place. As of June 30, officers had collected 95 guns from 21 people. Eleven more people elected to turn over their guns to family or friends.
“This job has been a lot less exciting than I thought it would be when I first applied for it,” Padilla said. “It’s a lot of sitting at a computer and looking at spreadsheets.”
Anderson, the senior deputy district attorney who manages the DA’s side of the process, keeps taped to her office door a copy of a handwritten note that a man wrote to his girlfriend as she lay in the hospital, on the brink of death. The man had shot her, and the note was both an apology and a marriage proposal. This grim equivalent of a motivational poster serves as a reminder that despite Portland’s efforts, these stories are still far too common, and there’s still work to be done.
To that end, Anderson says the process for recovering guns from abusers could be even more efficient: She is pushing the courts to consider changing the rules around restraining orders to set a hearing date for handing over any firearms when a restraining order is served. A clear deadline would increase compliance, the thinking goes, and sheriffs and detectives would have fewer cases to chase down.
“This process has become more effective the longer we’ve done it,” Anderson said. “Compliance hearings could help shorten the list even more. It’s the natural final piece.”
It might seem like the easiest way to ensure that domestic abusers give up their guns would be to give police the authority to recover those guns when they serve a restraining order. Otherwise, people have the opportunity to hide them, and they might lie on affidavits. But departments are wary of putting officers into potentially dangerous situations.
Garen Wintemute, who researched the gun dispossession efforts in California, found that abusers with the most violent pasts were the least likely to give up their guns. That, coupled with the inconclusive results of a follow-up study he conducted, led him to wonder whether these efforts are successful in obtaining guns only from the people who are already less likely to kill someone.
“There are a whole bunch of respondents to restraining orders who have guns out there, and if you were to knock on every single one of their doors, it would force them to put themselves into one of two groups,” Wintemute said, “someone who either says, ‘You can have my gun’ or ‘Get away from my house.’ Those two groups are very different and have very different motivations, so we can’t really say how well this type of program works with any certainty.”
Portland police face these same hurdles. “You certainly have suspicion sometimes” that people are lying when they say they don’t have a gun, Padilla said. Even when a gun has previously been reported in a domestic violence case, “if there’s no immediate information, just saying, ‘I believe you’re lying’ and going to file a search warrant — that’s not enough,” he said.
Portland’s efforts don’t represent a clean victory or necessarily an effective way to reduce domestic violence gun deaths on a large scale. But the city’s approach — divvying up the workload among agencies, so that no one department has to bear the entire burden — could be more reproducible than single-department efforts like the ones in California’s San Mateo and Butte counties.
We won’t have an accurate idea of how well this type of program works unless more cities try it, and try it for a longer period of time. Until that happens, the goal of doing better by its residents is enough to propel Portland forward. No one involved says the new process is a complete solution; it is a step toward enforcement while the law remains relatively easy to evade. But they’ve seen enough success that the agencies are expanding the program to all of Multnomah County, bringing more resources to smaller municipalities whose police forces have been unable to dedicate full-time staff to recovering guns from abusers.
For the sake of people like Nikki Elias, who do everything right, Portland wants to be sure it can say the same.
This article is part of our project exploring the more than 33,000 annual gun deaths in America and what it would take to bring that number down. Our podcast What’s The Point is highlighting the project all week.