Domestic violence law should be strong, clear

AP File Photo S.C. Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, and other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee spent several hours debating a bill aimed at increasing penalties for domestic violence and prohibiting people who are convicted of domestic violence from possessing firearms.

Alleviating domestic violence in South Carolina isn’t as cut and dry as it may seem. This is a multifaceted, intricate social issue that goes far beyond just a legislative fix. However, it’s obvious the state’s General Assembly needs to take legislative action to strengthen our state’s domestic violence laws. Thankfully, a bill addressing this issue appears likely to be taken up by the S.C. Senate soon – even possibly next week.

This a debate that needs to be deliberative and precise in order to properly tackle the issue on a legislative level. This has been a long standing need in our state that lawmakers have neglected. It’s clear that while any legislation must ultimately strengthen the current law, the legislature must do it substantivally, not just to erase it off the priority list.

The debate about tightening the state’s domestic violence laws has also become intermingled with the ability to own a gun, a stipulation that has put increased scrutiny and controversy on any potential legislation moving forward. That gun restriction is patterned after a federal law that says those convicted of criminal domestic violence can’t own or purchase a weapon again, according to S.C. Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, the bill’s main sponsor.

The bill making its way through the South Carolina legislature currently has language stating that someone convicted of domestic violence can’t own a firearm for 10 years. That’s a needed and firm penalty. However, as with any piece of legislation, there are gray areas to cover.

Federal restrictions already exist that essentially denies anyone convicted of domestic violence from possessing a firearm. However, that law obviously isn’t enforced by local and state enforcement. It’s enforced by federal law enforcement. Consequently, the federal law doesn’t get enforced “a whole lot,” according to S.C. Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, except for times when, for instance, the U.S. attorney’s office prosecutes someone for having a weapon when they aren’t supposed to have a firearm under that law. Even then, he noted, the situation has to likely be even more extreme for law enforcement to take the necessary steps to take away an individual’s firearms.

This is clearly an issue that’s gained significant attention as of late, especially because of the extensive and superb “Till death do us part” series by The Post and Courier newspaper in Charleston, which chronicled the lives of those impacted by domestic violence.

The attention the issue has garnered is undoubtedly deserved, and let’s be clear – even the lowest level of a criminal domestic violence charge shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Massey noted, however, that in the debate, legislators must particularly be cognizant of the penalties associated with the degrees of similar criminal activity – such as sending threatening phone calls and text messages – and how those tie into changes to the rights of gun owners. This is a wise approach as the debate on the floor of the General Assembly unfolds.

Also, this is an issue that clearly requires significant collaboration and the involvement of law enforcement officials, victim advocates and nonprofit organizations, among others. Recognizing this reality, S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley smartly announced the creation of a statewide task force on Thursday to help lawmakers look at ways to improve the system.

Reforming the state’s domestic violence laws has been a known priority of legislators for months, and too many lives are at stake to tackle this issue softly and slowly.

Still, it requires a deliberative approach that aims to effectively, and also justly, deal with issues that are often steeped in various levels of intensity, privacy and complexity.