Recently, Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled legislature unanimously approved a bill that would require people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence to turn in their firearms within 24 hours. In passing this measure, Pennsylvania joins 29 other states and the District of Columbia that restrict the possession of firearms by individuals that have committed domestic violence. Formerly, the state permitted people convicted of domestic violence to take up to 60 days to turn over their firearms.
Pennsylvania’s new law bears some resemblance to the Lautenberg Amendment, a federal law passed in 1996 that barred anyone with a domestic violence conviction from purchasing a gun. While the Lautenberg Amendment was stringent in some ways (it extended even to those with a misdemeanor conviction), it also had certain shortcomings. For example, its prohibitions applied only to current or former spouses, parents, guardians, co-parents, or live-in partners of a domestic violence victim. The law did not cover abuse in a dating relationship. Further, the law has not been enforced consistently. A spate of shootings involving perpetrators with domestic violence convictions has demonstrated that the federal law does not function as thoroughly as it should.
In the absence of comprehensive federal reform, state laws requiring the surrender of firearms form part of a legislative collage that covers the gaps in federal law. According to the Giffords Law Center on gun violence, 29 states prevent those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from purchasing guns or ammunition, while 37 states ban even people subject to protective orders from buying firearms. More than 20 states have passed laws that apply the ban on purchasing firearms to those who commit violence in a dating relationship, explicitly addressing the most obvious defect in the Lautenberg Amendment. While the conversation on federal gun control has grown louder and more insistent, state law may be the real proving ground for change.