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States taking action to keep guns out of abusers' hands

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IOWA CITY, Iowa – More than a dozen states have strengthened laws over the past two years to keep firearms out of the hands of domestic abusers, a rare area of consensus in the nation's highly polarized debate over guns.

Lawmakers and governors of both parties have supported bills stripping gun rights from those who have been convicted of domestic violence-related crimes or are subject to protective orders. The measures have been backed by victims' advocates, law enforcement groups and gun control supporters who see easy access to firearms as a major contributor to domestic violence killings.

Similar proposals are expected to be debated in several states this year.

"Domestic violence is definitely an area where there is the most agreement between the gun lobby and gun-violence prevention advocates," said Allison Anderman, staff attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence in San Francisco.

The National Rifle Association has taken a cautious approach toward such bills, opposing the farthest-reaching measures but staying neutral or negotiating compromises on others. For example, the NRA has fought provisions that would require people to surrender their guns before they have a chance to contest allegations made in a request for an emergency protective order.

"There is no evidence that simply taking away people's guns without a fair hearing makes the victims any safer," NRA spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen said.

The push in the states is driven by stories of women and children killed or wounded by known abusers, and by statistics showing that hostile relationships often turn deadly when guns are present.

An average of 760 Americans were killed with guns annually by spouses, ex-spouses or dating partners between 2006 and 2014, according to an Associated Press analysis of FBI and Florida data. Florida's statistics are not included in the FBI's report, which covers all other states and District of Columbia, but were analyzed separately by AP.

Number killed in domestic shootings in Florida: 2006-2014

Relationship   2006   2007   2008   2009   2010   2011   2012   2013   2014   Total 
Spouse 33 47 38 52 44 54 48 38 33 387
Cohabitant 14 15 20 18 12 21 20 14 17 151
Other 12 13 11 13 12 12 8 9 12 102
Total 59 75 69 83 68 87 76 61 62 640

Co-habitant is "where the victim lived with the offender as a married couple without legal marriage (former co-habitants should be included here)." So it wouldn’t include just a roommate; it would have to be a romantic partner.

The total is an undercount because not all law enforcement agencies report such information, and it doesn't include children and other bystanders who were killed. More than 80 percent of those killed were women.

"The system failed my son, and I am going to do whatever it takes to make sure it never happens to another child or another woman," said Hollie Ayers, 44, a Pennsylvania woman whose 2½-year-old son, Michael, was shot and killed in front of her by her abusive ex-husband in 2013. "Michael's life to me was priceless. If you can at least reduce the amount of homicides, this is a no-brainer to me."

Ayers, who was shot in the face and the leg, said she constantly thinks about her son, who loved tractors and puzzles. Her ex-husband killed himself after the rampage.

Ayers had warned that he had guns and had said that he, his ex-wife and the child "would be better off dead" before she obtained a permanent protection-from-abuse order, court records show. But the judge did not order her ex-husband to surrender his weapons, even after he violated the protective order.

Hollie Ayers is pushing for a Pennsylvania law that would require people to turn over their guns when judges issue protection orders against them.

Kim Stolfer, president of the Pennsylvania group Firearms Owners Against Crime, said his organization isn't on board with the idea yet. He said such legislation could be exploited by vindictive ex-spouses who level false allegations of abuse.

"We need some balance, and it's rapidly going the wrong way," he said.

In announcing executive action on gun control last month, President Barack Obama said protecting domestic abuse victims is one of his goals. His changes include strengthening the federal background check system, which has denied gun sales 120,000 times since 1998 because of domestic violence convictions.

Federal law has long prohibited felons, those convicted of misdemeanor domestic abuse crimes and individuals subject to permanent protective orders from buying or owning guns. Critics say the federal law is too weak because it does not apply to dating relationships, does not ban guns during temporary protective orders and does not establish procedures for abusers to surrender firearms.

States have been passing their own laws to match or exceed the federal prohibitions, delighting gun control advocates.

"We've passed them in blue states, red states and purple states," said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety. "We believe they are absolutely lifesaving."

Some of the strictest state laws create processes for seizing firearms from abusers and extend gun bans to stalkers, abusive dating partners and those who are subject to temporary protective orders.

Studies by public health researchers have generally concluded that such laws, when properly implemented, can reduce deaths.

Gun rights advocates say some of the laws are applied too broadly.

"It encompasses everybody who has a one-time blip in their life, and all of a sudden their gun rights are taken away forever," said Wes Dunbar, an Iowa lawyer who has represented defendants upset over losing their ability to hunt.

South Carolina and Wisconsin are two of the states dominated by Republicans and with a strong tradition of gun ownership that have taken steps to restrict abusers' access to guns.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker signed a law in 2014 requiring people subject to domestic abuse restraining orders to turn over their guns within 48 hours. The NRA stayed neutral after negotiating language that allows individuals to seek the return of their weapons once restraining orders are lifted.

Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina signed a measure in June that includes a life ban on gun ownership for the most serious domestic violence offenders.

"South Carolina is no longer thinking about the convenience of the abuser," Haley said when she signed the bill in June. "South Carolina is thinking about strengthening the survivor."