A ‘lethal combination’: Domestic violence and guns in Utah

Nov 13, 2023, 10:43 PM | Updated: Nov 14, 2023, 11:13 am

SALT LAKE CITY – More Utah women were shot and killed last year by a loved one than a stranger.  

Protective orders between intimate partners aim to help prevent this sort of tragedy. They give the parties distance and time to cool down, and they also seek to take guns out of the equation.  

But a KSL Investigation found there are gaps in how those orders are being enforced. 

Utah is one of 32 states where you can’t legally possess a gun if there’s a domestic violence protective order against you. But only 22 states require you to surrender the weapon to police or someone else, according to the gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety. 

The gun restriction in Utah usually isn’t enforced unless the weapon is used to threaten or hurt someone, or if police show up for another reason and find a firearm. 

That means it’s largely an honor system that advocates say isn’t working. 

Utah’s approach  

“What we hear from survivors is access to firearms by the person who is hurting them is the scariest part of what they’re dealing with, and is often what drives them to shelter,” said Erin Jemison, director of public policy for the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition. “Domestic violence and firearms is what’s killing people.” 

Erin Jemison with the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition talks about strategies for preventing relationship violence. (KSL TV)

The KSL Investigators surveyed more than 40 law enforcement agencies serving these orders across the state. Many said they serve hundreds a year. None said they could recall ever being ordered to confiscate someone’s weapons in the process.  

Earlier this year, state lawmakers intervened and tweaked the protocol.  

A new law requires those served with these orders to sign that they understand they can’t lawfully have a gun. In another 2023 change, investigators now have to run a background check before returning a suspect’s firearm from evidence. 

It might sound like common sense. But the law’s sponsor, Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, told colleagues it wasn’t always happening.  

“The primary issue we have is when we have inadvertently returned firearms to a restricted person,” he told colleagues on the House floor in January. “Which turns out we have.”  

Jemison said she’d like to see Utah go further by adopting a surrender law.  

“There’s not a lot of controversy around keeping firearms out of the hands of domestic violence abusers,” Jemison said. “Again, I’ve never gotten in an argument with a policymaker about that question.”  

Research shows these types of policies can help. A study from 2017 found they’re associated with lower rates of gun homicides involving intimate partners, by 14 percent. 

Attorney Kelly Roskam with the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions said the most effective of those laws make clear what needs to happen: To whom a person should turn in their firearms and when, along with proof they’ve done so, such as a receipt from a police department that they can bring to court. 

“What would help reduce intimate partner homicide even more is really effective and robust implementation of those firearm prohibition laws,” Roskam said.  

Melissa Castle told KSL she obtained a protective order against an ex four years ago.  

“I believe that a family unit is important, so it was really hard,” she said.  

The court order barred him from having any weapons. But two years later, Cache County sheriff’s deputies who’d been surveilling him served a search warrant at his home. They reported finding 38 guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition, court records state.  

“The officer that night called me and said, ‘You can sleep safe tonight,’” Castle recalled. 

Her ex pleaded guilty to possessing a gun as a restricted person, a class A misdemeanor. He was sentenced to probation and given credit for 10 days he’d already served in jail. 

Castle said she’s grateful for diligent police work by the Cache County deputies. But she said she wishes the state would have taken action sooner.   

“People are dying,” she said. “And people are afraid to live.” 

Lethal combination 

Several Utahns have been killed by the very perpetrator named in current or previous orders of protection. Eighteen adults died this way in domestic violence homicides from 2009-2016, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services, the most recent available.  

SueAnn Sands of American Fork was one. Police said she was shot and killed by her ex-boyfriend in 2016. 

More have followed. In 2020, Heidi Lynn Bentley was killed by her husband after she filed for a protective order and a divorce. 

These tragedies are causing concern for law enforcers. 

“Year after year, it is the lethal combination,” said Victoria McFarland, a federal prosecutor focused on firearm cases in Salt Lake City. 

When courts grant a protective order, McFarland said, “It would be lovely if the judge had the ability to order law enforcement to go search the house and the vehicle and all of the storage areas, but for a number of reasons, that’s just not a practical reality.”  

Federal prosecutor Victoria McFarland says domestic violence gun offenses are a top concern for law enforcers in Salt Lake City. (KSL TV)

A consequential court case  

Regardless of how these restrictions are currently enforced, a national legal challenge may remove them from the criminal code altogether. The case stemming from the arrest of a man in Texas reached the U.S. Supreme Court last week. And it has the justices weighing victim safety against gun rights.  

Criminal defense attorney Steve Burton sees problems with the current restrictions. He says they’re overly broad.  

While Utah courts have granted thousands of protective orders, he said, homicides involving the parties are rare.  

“I think instead of just a category, we have to look at what the risk is,” Burton said. “We need to balance what the actual statistical risk is of someone committing a violent act with a weapon, and balance that with the restrictions you put on a majority of people who would not commit a violent act.” 

Roskam anticipates the impact will be significant if the nation’s high court throws out the existing law.  

“I don’t think it’s an over-exaggeration to say that depending on the outcome of this case, more people are going to lose their lives,” Roskam said.    

The Supreme Court typically releases its rulings by July.

Emiley Morgan Dewey contributed research. 

Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at investigates@ksl.com or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.

Additional resources:

If you or someone you know is going through abuse, help is available.

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 

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A ‘lethal combination’: Domestic violence and guns in Utah