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Web extra: A pro-gun community in Louisiana leads the charge on disarming domestic abusers

(M. Spencer Green/ AP)
(M. Spencer Green/ AP)

This is a bonus podcast episode following up on our recent show about a gap in America’s federal gun laws.


Featuring

Lt. Valerie Martinez-Jordan of the Lafourche Parish Sheriff’s Department in Louisiana. (@LafourcheSO)

Sheriff Craig Webre of the Lafourche Parish Sheriff’s Department in Louisiana.


MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: There’s an amendment to the Gun Control Act of 1968 that says people convicted of abusing an intimate partner cannot own or buy a firearm. The amendment defines intimate partner in various ways — a current or former spouse, someone living or having lived with the victim or, or has a child with them. But it leaves out an entire group: convicted abusers who dated, but never lived, with their victim.

It’s known as the “boyfriend loophole.”

Various efforts over the years to close that loophole in federal law have all failed.

But the loophole is not the only problem with the law. Many, if not most of the people the law applies to, never actually get their guns taken away, because it’s a law that’s rarely enforced.

And I should note that each year more than 600 women are shot and killed by an intimate partner – about half of them had dated — but not married — their assailant.

So some states and local law enforcement agencies have taken it upon themselves to develop their own firearm hand-in laws that they can effectively enforce.

That’s happened in California, Washington state, Colorado and … In Lafourche Parish, Louisiana.

And what happened in Louisiana is what we’re going to hear about in this special On Point podcast with our producer, Paige Sutherland.


PAIGE SUTHERLAND: Central to our story is Valerie Martinez-Jordan. She’s a lieutenant in the Lafourche Parish Sheriff’s Department. But her story begins 1,000 miles away in Lamar, Colorado, where she grew up.

VALERIE MARTINEZ-JORDAN: All I knew in that home was violence. Physical abuse, sexual abuse, drugs at the hand of my biological father.

It was a childhood that would have reverberations throughout her life. When she was a teenager in high school, Martinez-Jordan met someone who, she thought at the time, had saved her. Telling her things she had never heard before.

MARTINEZ-JORDAN: And so to have somebody of that age tell you they love you and want to protect you and keep you safe. It was mind boggling to me. The day I graduated high school, I moved out, went to the house, got my belongings, a little bit of stuff I had and I never, never went back to the house.

SUTHERLAND: Martinez-Jordan moved in with her high school sweetheart and they eventually got married and had two kids together. She began a career in-law enforcement. It seemed she had everything going for her … except her husband was becoming increasingly possessive – and acting out.

MARTINEZ-JORDAN: He busted out some large, expensive windows at a restaurant because he said I was looking at somebody else who was my cousin.

SUTHERLAND: His paranoia only increased. One day Martinez-Jordan came home from her job at the sheriff’s department and her husband had destroyed their house. Broken glass was everywhere. She ran inside to grab her two kids, then aged three and seven. But he wouldn’t let her go.

MARTINEZ-JORDAN: And I turn around, I have my little one in my arm, and he picked up that large eagle head figurine and he raised it above my head and he said he was going to … kill me. And at that time, I wasn’t thinking about me. My daughter was bleeding. So I told him, I said, ‘You don’t have to. You already did.’

SUTHERLAND: After that incident, she knew she had to leave.

MARTINEZ-JORDAN: He got arrested. He was convicted. He was forced to take classes and there was a protective order.

SUTHERLAND: Even after all that, her husband wouldn’t stay away. So she filed for divorce, and when that came through, in 2001, she packed up her car, and her two girls and sought somewhere very different to continue her law enforcement career.

And that’s how Valerie ended up in Lafourche Parish, Louisiana. It’s a community of about 100,000 people on the shore of the Gulf of Mexico, just 50 miles south of New Orleans. And it lies entirely within the Mississippi River Delta. So there are lots of marshes, and lots of guns.

CRAIG WEBRE: Well, south Louisiana and Louisiana in general is a very pro-gun state. Lafourche Parish, very welcoming parish. People love their families. They love getting together. And probably every family owns at least a dozen firearms. Maybe not that many, but it’s pretty predominant.

SUTHERLAND: That’s Martinez-Jordan’s boss, Sheriff Craig Webre. He’s been the sheriff in Lafourche for thirty years.

When he hired Martinez-Jordan to be a patrol officer in 2001, she recalls responding to a lot of domestic violence calls. And quickly being struck by how little she could do as a police officer.

MARTINEZ-JORDAN: I was shocked. We had progressive laws in Colorado. … Even if you didn’t hit me but you committed an act of violent behavior in my presence and … you threw the dishes against the wall, you didn’t hit me, but it was in my presence. Those laws existed.

So when I came here and I was responding to calls like that, and Louisiana … didn’t even have a domestic violence statute. I’m like, What do you mean? What do you charge? But what about protection? So we started having those in-depth conversations of how deficient we were.

SUTHERLAND: Officer Martinez-Jordan was sure what she was seeing on the job were not isolated cases.

MARTINEZ-JORDAN: We realized maybe there’s more we can do, more social, more social change and not be able to be proactive instead of reactive as an agency. So we started looking at the numbers. Louisiana was ranked at the top of the top, I think at that time we were ranked third in domestic homicide and the mechanism most commonly used was a handgun. So it’s like, OK, we have to do something we have to do, something is broken.

SUTHERLAND: In 2003, state lawmakers created a domestic abuse battery charge. But Martinez-Jordan knew that would not fix the problem.

The new law said nothing about keeping guns out of the hands of abusers in their state. There was a federal prohibition for those convicted of misdemeanor domestic abuse – with the boyfriend loophole  – but no state law existed to prohibit abusers from possessing firearms.

MARTINEZ-JORDAN: I could only enforce laws in the Parish of Lafourche. Federal law, I do not have that authority to enforce. So you have to have a federally commissioned individual who can enforce those federal laws.

SUTHERLAND: And right there Martinez-Jordan is pointing to another really big problem. Not just in Louisiana, but nationwide. Federal authorities rarely enforce this prohibition. Frankly, Sheriff Webre notes, because they don’t have the resources.

WEBRE: Well, I’ve spoken to in meetings with federal authorities, and I tell them, if you’re trying to take the guns out of people’s hands that potentially pose a threat, you could probably create a new federal agency simply to comply with 922(g).

Because there’s literally tens of thousands of people in every state and every county and every city, town that are either being prohibited because of a qualifying domestic protective order or because of a conviction that emanated from a domestic violence charge. And literally, it would take a massive amount of manpower on a federal level.

SUTHERLAND: So Martinez-Jordan built a program unique at the time in Louisiana. The sheriff’s office would send letters advising certain domestic abuse offenders that they were prohibited under federal law from owning a firearm. And then they would follow up with them with a phone call or visit explaining how they could turn them in.

MARTINEZ-JORDAN: So we started doing is education and then we started helping them to educate them. And a lot of them like, well, thank you. I didn’t know. Because we approached it as an education, not as punitive.

SUTHERLAND: So they had some success. But again, the sheriff’s department had no authority to enforce this prohibition.

Meanwhile, year after year, Louisiana had among the highest rates of female homicides by men in the nation. Sheriff Webre says that Martinez-Jordan’s efforts finally began to get lawmaker’s attention.

WEBRE: I think those statistics were very eye opening and important in the legislature recognizing the need to pass its own its own laws not just rely on the federal laws in the area of gun divestiture.

SUTHERLAND: But statistics only go so far. As it so often does, there was a local case that caught the media’s attention that made all the difference.

On December 26, 2013, Ben Freeman killed his wife and then drove over to his former mother-in-law’s house with a shotgun. He then shot and killed her, and shot her husband and their daughter, who both survived. His ex-wife wasn’t home at the time.

He then went over to his former boss’s house and shot and killed him.

Charmaine Caccioppi, a friend of one of the victims killed, decided she had to do something. So, she assembled a team of advocates and worked tirelessly to change the state law so that anyone – yes, anyone – convicted of a misdemeanor domestic crime could not have a gun.

The first hurdle? Getting it through the Republican-led House. The vote was 99 Yays and O Nays.

Now, the bill had to clear the Republican controlled Senate.

Here’s former state senator JP Morrell on the Senate floor: “This literally is your opportunity in the law to save people’s lives.”

Shortly after, they voted.

38 Yays and 0 Nays. The bill passed unanimously in both chambers.

It then went to the governor’s desk. And then-governor Republican Bobby Jindal quickly signed it.

WEBRE: We were thinking, we’re going to be facing a mountain of opposition. We’re going to have all sorts of grandstanding testimonial speeches that is going to rip us up on why this a terrible thing? And it just really took the lifespan of its own. It sailed through and boom it got passed and signed into law.

SUTHERLAND: So now officers like Martinez-Jordan have the authority to arrest anyone in her parish who has a gun, who has been convicted of a misdemeanor domestic crime, or has a qualifying protection order against them.

In 2018, the state legislature went one step further, passing a law requiring courts to order that offenders surrender their firearms to local enforcement. The letters Lafourche Parish had been sending out finally had the backing of state law. Now Martinez-Jordan could finally do something.

MARTINEZ-JORDAN: So that changed everything. … What that means is the judge will check off on the box of the protective order and it will say you are prohibited from possessing firearms because of this statute, because sexual assault, domestic violence stalking.

So he’ll check the appropriate one. And they’ll say, OK, you are now hereby prohibited. Here is an affidavit you have to disclose in open court. Do you possess firearms? Do you have access to firearms? Yes, I do. No, I don’t. Either way, yes, I do.

And so they’ll fill it out and then the judge will electronically submit it to us, but our judges are great here. They will actually physically make the defendant with the order, come to our office with the paper and say the judge just gave me this and I have to come talk to you.

SUTHERLAND: Offenders have 48 hours to surrender their firearms and then ten days to submit to the court proof that they did so.

WEBRE: You don’t lose ownership. And that’s something you have to clarify because people think that you’re taking their guns, they don’t own it. You still own them. If you have a valuable relic and a collection, you don’t, you don’t lose the ownership. The state law does not take away the ownership right. It just takes your possession right away.

SUTHERLAND: There are three options on how to surrender your guns. Either have the sheriff’s department store them for free, sell them lawfully or transfer them to a qualifying third party.

WEBRE: The most common and most widely used and really been pretty successfully is what we refer to as third party transfer. So third party transfer means a different person, someone else outside of a household will take possession and maintain possession of those firearms until such time that you are legally able to repossess them. If that time ever comes.

MARTINEZ-JORDAN: If these firearms end up back in his hands, there is a statute that you provided firearms to a prohibited possessor, you will be arrested and you will go to jail.

SUTHERLAND: Over the years, Martinez-Jordan has traveled around the state advising other jurisdictions how they can set up their own gun relinquishment programs modeled on the one in Lafourche Parish. And she’s met with a lot of skepticism from fellow police officers, mostly about the challenge of storing a potentially large number of firearms, orderly and securely.

MARTINEZ-JORDAN: My sheriff says something pretty profound. And I talk about it at every training I go to. Whenever he had to go testify and they talked about well storage, I’ll have to have this, I’ll have to climate-controlled it. Here’s my question to you: ‘Where are you going to put that gun after he kills her with it? The same place you don’t want to put it now. So why are you willing to take it after he kills her with it?’

SUTHERLAND: And Martinez-Jordan thinks any law enforcement agency regardless of size can do it.

MARTINEZ-JORDAN: It is absolutely achievable in the fact that it is done with myself, another officer and one civil deputy. We’re not a small agency. We’re not a large agency. We’re kind of perfect in the fact that, what we do mimics the vast majority or sizes of law enforcement agencies across the country. So if Lafourche with a small budget and a small staff could do this, then it would be more achievable as by other agencies.

SUTHERLAND: And she says there is one big reason to implement this kind of program: It works.

MARTINEZ-JORDAN: We haven’t had a domestic homicide by a prohibited possessor since this program started, but you’re never going to hear of the lives you saved because you’re not going to know. But you’re going to know about the ones you didn’t. And we haven’t heard – they don’t exist.

So something in that equation is telling me that it’s working. What we’re doing is effective. This is not a cookie cutter program. It cannot be one stop shopping. One program fits every parish, every law enforcement agency. No, but the foundation of what we’ve created, can.

SUTHERLAND: That was Lieutenant Valerie Martinez-Jordan of Lafourche Parish, Louisiana. We also heard from Sheriff Craig Webre. In the last three years, nearly 500 firearms have been taken out of the hands of convicted domestic abusers, just in Lafourche Parish alone.

And the very program that Lieutenant Martinez-Jordan started from the ground up at the sheriff’s department will more or less be mirrored by every parish statewide. For On Point, I’m Paige Sutherland.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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