GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — As more lives are lost to domestic violence in Kent County each year, Michigan is moving to keep guns out of abusers’ hands.
The state House passed a package of three bills Wednesday night to protect survivors from their abusers. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is expected to sign the legislation.
Abusers would not be able to buy, own or transport guns for eight years after their sentencing.
Homicide rates for domestic violence have surged in Kent County in the last two years, said Rachel VerWys, the CEO of the Grand Rapids nonprofit Safe Haven Ministries.
“The reality is that domestic violence intimate partner abuse is really prevalent in our community,” VerWys said.
Many of the deaths from domestic violence involved weapons.
“Research across the country shows access to firearms increases the likelihood of homicide of a domestic violence victim by five times,” VerWys said. “The research shows that access to a weapon matters and people’s lives are at stake.”
Just this week, dozens of people have hearings across Kent County for domestic assault charges. They include repeat offenders, one of whom is accused of assaulting a pregnant woman.
“That fear and that use of power control with weapons is real in the lives of domestic violence victims,” VerWys said.
Current state law already blocks abusers convicted of domestic violence felonies from owning a gun up to five years after their sentencing. But there’s no state law blocking those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from having a gun.
“Within our criminal justice system, often perpetrators rarely get to the level of a felony conviction in terms of assault,” VerWys said.
That would change with these bills, which would affect a wide range of misdemeanor charges, including assault and battery, stalking and vulnerable adult abuse.
“It only lists eight misdemeanors, which are consistent with the type of violent behavior that you would see in a dating relationship which has gone badly,” Michael McDaniel, the director of homeland law for Cooley Law School, said.
The victim would have to meet certain criteria to bar the offender from possessing a gun. The victim would have to be the convicted person’s spouse or ex-spouse or have had a “dating relationship” with them. Other criteria include the victim having a child with the offender or having lived in the same household.
There is already a similar federal law that bans those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from having a gun. Advocates argue it doesn’t go far enough, as it doesn’t apply to all domestic abusers.
The Michigan bills could face legal challenges. Next week, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hear a challenge to a 1994 federal law that bans people under domestic violence restraining orders from owning guns. The case, United States v. Rahimi, involves a Texas man who was given a civil restraining order and barred from owning firearms after his ex-girlfriend accused him of assault. Officers later executed a search warrant at Rahimi’s home for a separate case and found that he illegally possessed a gun.
McDaniel told News 8 that even though the looming Supreme Court case is a concern, it would take a unique ruling to overturn the bills.
He said the U.S. Supreme Court would have to follow a very strict interpretation of its 2022 ruling in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen. In that case, the court struck down a more than 100-year-old New York gun law that had placed restrictions on carrying a concealed handgun in public places.
Additionally, McDaniel said the court would have to institute a broad expansion of the Second Amendment right to bear arms in order to possibly strike the Michigan bills down.
“They could decide the case in a way that would cause these new laws in Michigan to be unconstitutional, but I don’t see them deciding the case that broadly,” McDaniel said.
VerWys emphasized that domestic violence devastates “victims, families, neighborhoods and the whole community.” She argued it’s in the public’s interest to take a strong stand against domestic violence.
“When we put into place more accountability, we do create a safer community for everyone,” VerWys said. “I think that’s important to realize this isn’t someone else’s problem — this is our whole community’s issue to bring solutions and accountability around.”
If you or someone you know is a survivor of domestic violence, there is help. To contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline, call 1.800.799.SAFE or text START to 88788. Call 911 if you are in danger.