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Gun Law Gaps: The Cost Of Illegal Gun Possession

Federal law prohibits people with misdemeanor domestic violence convictions or protection orders from possessing firearms. But as 10 Investigates discovered, this federal law is rarely enforced.

It’s a tragic tale that happens time and time again – a domestic violence victim is gunned down by someone they loved.

As Bexley Police Chief Larry Rinehart knows, no one is immune.

His sister, Laura, was gunned down by her husband in 2001. The temporary restraining order she had against him offered no protection.

“He kicks the door in on the house, guns her down in front of her daughters with a firearm he had illegally borrowed from a brother," recalled Rinehart.

The Associated Press released an analysis this month that showed on average 760 Americans have been shot to death annually by spouses, ex-spouses or significant others between 2006 and 2014.

How to curb that tide remains a topic of heated national debate. Republicans often argue laws exist to handle the problem if punishments were increased, while Democrats argue for more background checks and restrictions.

But is their truth to either argument?



Rinehart points out that despite federal law forbidding people with protection orders and domestic violence convictions from possessing firearms, little is done to enforce it at a state or local level.

"We don't have the 10 year sentencing laws that I read about on that long list of federal gun violations.  We don't have that tool in our tool belt. I read, I hear and I believe that the feds do not actively enforce those laws, they don't prosecute those laws." 

Federal law exists to prevent repeat domestic violence offenders and those with restraining orders from getting a gun, but as 10 Investigates discovered, this federal law has been used less and less over the past 10 years.

Figures obtained by 10 Investigates show that federal prosecutions for illegally possessing have declined between 2004 to 2014. In 2004, 12,962 people were prosecuted nationwide for federal firearms violations, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. In 2014, prosecutions were down to 10,923.

When asked why prosecutions had a decade-long downward trend, The US Department of Justice defended the number of cases prosecuted, saying that it "depends on the specific facts and circumstances in the federal cases brought each year."

Gun crimes still made up about 12 – 15 percent of all cases they prosecute, a DOJ spokesman added.



For several gun crimes, Ohio has no similar state charge that can be prosecuted locally instead.

A 10 Investigates review of Ohio law reveals that the state’s firearm possession prohibitions do not match federal law. In Ohio, people do not face local prosecution for possessing firearms while also having domestic violence misdemeanor convictions, protection orders or domestic violence restraining orders.

Because people with misdemeanor domestic violence and protection orders are not prohibited from firearm possession by state law, local law enforcement are not tasked with identifying and charging illegal firearm possession.

In Ohio, felons can and are arrested for crimes often face added “Weapons Under Disability” charges, police said.

According to Lindsay Nichols, Senior Attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 12 states have added gun laws to their arsenal in recent years.

Currently, 24 states and the District of Columbia prohibit someone convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from possessing a firearm according to Nichols and 22 states categorically prohibit someone who is subject to a domestic violence restraining order from possessing firearms.



Still, loopholes remain.

If a person surrenders their firearms during a protection order, they can still buy a new one at gun shows and through online sales. The issue has been debated nationally, but never resolved.

This January, 10 Investigates met a Hilliard man selling a semi-automatic rifle at a local shopping center parking lot. It was arranged through legal website Armslist.com. Sales require no background check and it's arranged online in just minutes. The Hilliard man tells us as long as buyers seem like "good guys" he'll sell a firearm to them.

Some arms sales arranged online are through federally licensed dealers. Individuals selling weapons occasionally and not for a “livelihood” according to the ATF are considered “hobbyists.” There is no clear federal determination to show what constitutes a hobbyist compared to an individual in the business of selling and obtaining firearms.

“That's why you have background checks,” said US Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). You're not denying anybody a gun. You're simply saying you're going to wait a few days while you do the background check to find out if you are qualified. Because if you are on the terrorist watch list or you've been beating up on your wife from time to time or you have all kinds of mental health issues, you shouldn't be able to get a gun. There should be background checks, period.”

Asked why Congress is not changing the law to create universal firearm sale background checks, Sen. Brown responded, “The gun lobby in this town, they own one political party, they get their way on darn near everything. It's just frankly shameful.”



Rep. Nickie Antonio (D-Lakewood) is drafting legislation to make Ohio’s firearm prohibitions the same as federal law. The bill, not yet introduced, would direct judges to order the removal or surrender of firearms in the possession of those prohibited by federal law.

“When I've heard the stories of the number of women who have been murdered while there's a protection order out there, I believe if we can save one life, then it would be worth it,” said Rep. Antonio.

“As long as society agrees that it should be misdemeanor domestic violence convictions, than we wouldn’t fight. But what we do not want to have happen is we don’t want to have more laws on top of those to make it more confusing and more importantly, to give prosecutors more opportunity to plea bargain them away,” said Gerard Valentino, spokesperson for the Buckeye Firearms Association.

Sen. Jim Hughes (R-Columbus) introduced Senate Bill 97 that would increase state prison sentences for felons arrested for crimes currently prohibited by state law. If passed, the possible sentence for illegal possession of a firearm would increase by 50%. That could result in additional years in state prison for repeat gun offenders. The bill would not expand the definition of those prohibited from possessing firearms as Rep. Antonio’s bill does.

“When you have people like that [who] have no regard for life, the sanctity of life, we need to throw the book at them because government needs to protect its citizens against these people. These people should not be on the street,” said Sen. Hughes.