Dallas Judge Cracks Down on Domestic Violence Offenders With Gun Surrender Initiative

Judge Roberto Cañas says cutting down on gun possession by domestic violence offenders could save many lives in Dallas.
Judge Roberto Cañas says cutting down on gun possession by domestic violence offenders could save many lives in Dallas.

Dallas County Judge Roberto Cañas has a grim job: He presides over a county criminal court that specifically sees domestic violence cases. While Cañas does not hear felony cases, he sees plenty people come through his court whom he worries would be more than capable of more violent acts. This fear that has led him to become a local spokesman for the movement to enforce a hard-to-enforce law -- requiring domestic violence offenders to surrender their guns.

The movement to crack down on domestic violence offenders' gun ownership has gained momentum since the murder of Karen Cox Smith in January 2013. After enduring more than 10 years of abuse by her husband, Cox was shot to death in a UT Southwestern parking garage by her husband, Ferdinand Smith. He had completed a period of probation for a domestic violence offense before the murder, and he owned a gun despite a state law that prohibited it.

Domestic abusers who accept plea bargains and are placed on probation may not possess firearms for the term of their probation plus five years. Smith's husband was one of many offenders who broke the rule.

It's a seldom enforced law that Cañas says, if invoked, could save the lives of future domestic violence victims. Yet Dallas has a pretty dismal history in following through with the firearm prohibition. Since Texans aren't required to register their guns, and the state doesn't have any go-to list of gunowners, it can be hard to enforce. Another issue is money: Between storage costs and the manpower required to enforce the law, offenders can easily avoid turning in their guns.

But lackadaisical law enforcement comes at a cost: "If there's a gun in home, it raises the homicide rate by 60 percent," Judge Cañas said. "In the past, there have been around two dozen domestic violence homicides a year. I feel pretty safe in saying over 50 percent of these involved firearms."

DFW Gun Range has already volunteered to store seized firearms. And several county judges are working on creating tighter restrictions for offenders. If the perpetrator lies about possessing a firearm, they will likely be brought up on secondary charges, including perjury and contempt of court.

For now, says Cañas, courts will be relying on the honor code. In an informal experiment over the past few weeks, Cañas has been asking offenders if they own firearms. About 10 percent have answered yes. After that, they are required to produce documentation that they have surrendered their gun to authorities within a certain amount of time.

"Unfortunately it's not as proactive as reactive," Cañas said. "But in my mind, that's going to be a shortcoming of any procedure we come up with."

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