ANNAPOLIS A bill to broaden police powers to seize guns from domestic abusers came under fire in the General Assembly last week.
One Cockeysville woman told the Senate and House judiciary committees that the bill, which would ease rules for police gun searches, could harm women rather than help them.
While most of the debate split between abuse and Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches, Jan A. Barnes opposed the bill for a reason that combined the two issues.
“A false accusation of abuse against a gun-owning wife by a violent and vindictive husband would result not only in the wife’s expulsion from the home and separation from her children, but also in the seizure of her firearms,” Barnes said.
The bill is one of three pieces of domestic violence legislation under debate in the General Assembly this year. It would allow courts to order law enforcement officers to search for and seize guns from abusers.
Officers are allowed to seize weapons if they witness one being used in an abuse situation. Batterers also are required to turn over their weapons if ordered to do so by the court. But this bill would expand those powers, allowing a judge to authorize a search if reasonable grounds exist grounds as simple as one person’s word that there is a gun.
Kate Wood of Baltimore testified in favor of the bill. She said too many victims have died from gun-related incidents. Last year her daughter, Francseea Batts, was killed by Batts’ child’s father. Two days before her death, Batts filed a petition for protection from domestic violence, Wood said. As part of her petition, Batts requested the man’s gun be taken away. Police served him with a temporary order, forcing him to leave the home, but allowing him to take a box containing the gun with him. Police said they had no authority to search the box. After police left, the man returned to Batts’ house and killed her.
Some senators said they were moved by Wood’s testimony, but they still are concerned the issue may violate constitutional rights.
Sen. Leo Green, D-Prince George’s, said the bill is too broad, and critics charge it will give police officers a blank check to search homes without reason. Green is the vice-chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee where the bill received a hearing last week.
The Maryland Office of the Attorney General, however, said the bill already satisfies the constitutional requirement of federal and state laws.
The Senate committee may vote on the firearm bill as early as Friday, Green said. The other two bills are stalled.
Sponsors of the two bills have failed to respond to senators’ requests for more information, Green said. The bills have not been discussed, and therefore will not get a vote this week, he said.
One will need significant changes to pass, Green said, but he declined to be specific.
That bill would allow a person in a “dating relationship” to seek a civil, protective order from abuse. The bill defines a dating relationship as “a social relationship of a romantic nature which may or may not be a sexual relationship.” Currently, the law covers only victims who have a child with, live with, or have been married to their abusers.
“There (are) a solid four or five votes against it, right now,” Green said.
A third bill seeks to redefine the definition of home, allowing out-of-state victims to receive assistance in Maryland. Currently, people may only apply for a protective order if they have lived in the state for 90 days.
Abuse victims often flee to escape violence but are chased by their batterers, testified Sen. Delores G. Kelley, D-Baltimore, the primary sponsor of the Senate bill. Victims cannot seek help from the state until they’ve lived here 90 days. Sometimes that is too long, she said.
The three bills come on the heels of a study by the state police that reported 72 victims of domestic abuse were killed by their abusers between July 1, 1997, and June 30, 1998.