HARRISBURG — During the hours-long debate this week on a bill to tighten restrictions on domestic abusers who own firearms, there were emotional speeches on the House floor about women who died at the hands of their partners.
There was a declaration of the NRA’s neutral stance on the bill; questions about constitutional rights and due process; and admissions that, while the bill wasn’t perfect, it was a step in the right direction — that it would save lives. There were also legislators who, in so many words, introduced the question:
Can we really believe every woman’s accusation?
It’s a question that permeates every facet of American society, from college campuses to state legislatures to Supreme Court nomination processes.
“What is before us is whether or not we trust women,” Rep. Mike Sturla, a Democrat who represents Lancaster city, said Wednesday. “That’s what this bill is about.”
HB 2060, which passed the House 131-62, would require people convicted of misdemeanor domestic abuse and people with a final protection from abuse (PFA) order to surrender their firearms within 24 hours — directly to law enforcement or a gun dealer. Previously, they had the option of turning them over to friends or family. The bill was amended to provide judges discretion in instances where the parties reach a consent agreement.
The effort had bipartisan support. Both Democrats and Republicans made up the yea votes — while a handful of Democrats (eight in total) joined several Republicans in voting against it.
Rep. Jeff Pyle, a Republican who represents a rural district north of Pittsburgh, objected to the 24-hour relinquishment requirement by putting forth a hypothetical about his neighbor “Matt” who works several hours from home. “Let’s assume his wife goes out and says, ‘Matt looked at me funny’” and gets a PFA, he said: What would happen if “Matt” couldn’t meet the 24-hour deadline?
Pyle also questioned whether someone frightened simply by his own tall stature could get a PFA against him.
The answer is no. Under state law, “abuse” is defined as attempted or actual bodily harm including rape, “reasonable fear of imminent serious bodily injury,” false imprisonment, or stalking.
Pittsburgh area Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, one of the most pro-gun legislators in the Assembly, also cast doubt on the veracity of PFA claims — and seemingly referenced the allegations of sexual misconduct against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. On the national stage, he said, “accusations can be made,” even if there isn’t evidence.
Julie Bancroft of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence (PCADV), a driving force behind the bill, said questions about the trustworthiness of women and PFA standards are not rooted in truth.
“It’s really difficult for women to come forward,” Bancroft said. “It’s unfair to indicate that because someone is seeking a PFA they’re lying. It’s really not he-said, she-said.”
A ‘preponderance of evidence’
In addition to questioning the veracity of women’s allegations, a few Republican lawmakers raised concerns about judges’ judgment.
There are three kinds of PFAs issued in Pennsylvania:
- An emergency order, issued by an on-call magistrate, which is good until family court closes the following day
- A temporary order, issued by a Common Pleas Court judge to last for up to 10 days
- A final order, which can be in place for up to three years
Mandatory relinquishment as defined in this bill only applies to final protection orders issued by a judge, the bill’s sponsor Republican Marguerite Quinn noted several times on the House floor. (There were 6,566 statewide in 2016.) It’s already law that judges may use discretion to decide if a PFA defendant must relinquish.
Filing procedures for PFAs are different in each county, said Kathleen O’Malley, managing attorney for Philly-based Women Against Abuse. The process generally involves going to family court and being asked to “describe in detail” alleged abuse. But in all counties, to obtain a final protection order, the burden of proof is on the person making the allegation.
At the hearing, the “plaintiff must prove the allegation of abuse by a preponderance of the evidence.” That’s different than “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the standard in criminal trials.
“It’s up to the judge to decipher what they heard,” O’Malley said, and to make judgments about credibility. “There is due process,” she added.
And making these calls is what family court judges are taught to do, said Jenifer Thompson, director of program services at PCADV. They’re trained to “weed out” people making false allegations versus those with genuine concerns.
“If we continually go back to the argument that women lie,” she said, “we’re saying judges don’t know how to do their job.”
Opponents of HB 2060 have also argued that if a person was granted a temporary order but not a final one, that indicates there wasn’t actually abuse. In 2016, more than 34,000 temporary orders were granted statewide, while more than 13,000 final orders or agreements were issued or reached.
Bancroft called that idea “inaccurate,” explaining that people choose “not to proceed for a number of reasons.” She added that it’s “incredibly difficult for victims of domestic violence to seek help” and those who do are living in “extreme fear.”
More reform on the horizon?
No longer allowing friends or family to hold on to guns for people with PFAs was just one of several recommendations made by a Joint State Government Commission in 2016.
Both Democrats and Republicans have already introduced legislation that addresses the report’s other recommendations, including using a risk assessment tool to determine if domestic violence defendants should be offered bail. That bill, named for a woman murdered by her abusive husband who was out on bond, was signed into law this April.
Todd Spivak, an attorney in Pittsburgh who specializes in PFAs, has spoken in favor of reforming the system to “curb false claims of abuse.” He noted that even with temporary orders, people could be evicted from their home or forced to relinquish firearms. He said that even though the burden of proof is “much lower” in civil court than it is in criminal court, defendants can still end up with a criminal charge.
“If someone is willing…to lie or exaggerate or fabricate on a PFA petition, what’s to stop them from lying” about a violation of the order, Spivak said. “Defendants can have their lives turned upside down.”
That’s what Rep. Russ Diamond of Lebanon claimed happened to him.
Diamond, a Republican, said on the House floor Wednesday that he himself was a victim of domestic violence and that the two PFAs filed (then later withdrawn) against him were for false reasons.
He’s not the only sitting lawmaker with PFAs in his past. Rep. Nick Miccarelli this year agreed to a three-year PFA brought by his former girlfriend and fellow lawmaker Tarah Toohil, who said the Republican threatened and stalked her. Rep. Kevin Haggerty’s wife filed a PFA against the Democrat for alleged physical abuse. He later put forth a proposal to drug test people who seek PFAs.
Diamond and Haggerty voted against the bill. Miccarelli, who relinquished his firearms as part of the three-year agreement, voted for it.
Spivak said some of the proposed changes to the PFA process “appear to be good common sense proposals,” even to defense lawyers. “Others seem to go too far.”
“The legislature is taking on something very difficult — finding the right balance of protecting victims while also not trampling on the rights of the accused,” he said.
As for HB 2060, its introducer, Rep. Quinn, said she believes it will pass the Senate. A similar measure did so unanimously in March.
Bancroft noted that nothing in HB 2060 changes how PFAs are issued in Pennsylvania. Arguments about the current process seemed designed to sow doubt and confusion about the bill, she said.
“It’s not a perfect system. It’s the system that we have,” she said. “It’s a system that helps victims.”