New Law to Curtail Domestic Violence Gun Crimes Creates Burden for Sheriff’s Departments

| February 17, 2019

VENANGO CO., Pa. (EYT) – A new law created to lessen domestic violence gun crimes will add to the local sheriff’s departments’ responsibilities.

With Pennsylvania’s Act 79, a new law requiring anyone under a Protection From Abuse (PFA) order to relinquish their firearms, taking effect in April, the sheriff’s departments in our region are looking at how the new law will be enforced. One of the concerns is storage space, according to Venango County Sheriff Eric Foy.

Foy expressed worries about the number of guns his department will be responsible to confiscate.

“There could be people who have five rifles or somebody that has 100,” Foy told exploreVenango.com.

“When that order came down, it’s pretty distinctive about who’s going to take the weapons: a third party is pretty much out the door unless it’s an attorney or an FFL (Federal Firearms License) dealer or a commercial armory. So, the logistics of it are going to be on the sheriff.”

Foy is looking at how to expand the department’s current space to allow for the storage of more guns in PFA cases. He has already spoken to the Venango County commissioners, and the department has an idea of where would be a good, logical place in the courthouse.

Clarion County Sheriff Rex Munsee and Jefferson County Sheriff Carl Gotwald echoed the same concerns.

While Sheriff Munsee is hoping to be able to modify a current storage space to use for a gun room, even that space could possibly be insufficient under some circumstances.

“The right guy in Clarion County could practically fill that room, and I know that,” explained Munsee.

Clarion County Sheriff Rex Munsee

“I think last year we served about 70 PFAs. So, that’s 70 times that I’m going to have to go find out about the guns and get them. Well, 70 times in Clarion County, sooner or later I’m going to hit the big one where I’ve got some guy who’s got a room full of guns or a safe full of guns he’s keeping in a climate controlled safe, and here I am going to be putting them in the backseat of my car.”

“I can see for some people with very nice expensive guns, they’re going to be angry. And, when I give those guns back, they’re going to be even angrier if there’s any little scratch, they’re going to be suing. It’s not going to be good.”

Gotwald is also looking for ways to expand his department’s current gun storage area.

“I know someone personally who has 800 guns. What would I do with them? And, I can’t give them to anyone else, because under the new law, I can’t release them to a third party,” said Gotwald.

“Right now, we keep ours in one of the old jail cells. We have one of them converted into a huge gun locker. Now I’m looking to try to get our maintenance to clean out another cell because I’m going to have to expand that in April.”

Prior to Act 79, guns were only occasionally seized in PFA cases, at the judge’s discretion, and the rules about who could keep the guns while the PFA was active were different, as well.

“I would bet that if we served ten PFAs, maybe the eleventh might include taking the guns. It wasn’t a lot,” commented Munsee.

Sheriff Gotwald added, “Right now when we take the weapons, you can have a third party come in and take the firearms and keep them in storage. I always tell the person, ‘If he’s caught with that gun it’s a misdemeanor charge, and you’re getting charged with it, too.'”

Under Act 79, the sheriff’s departments are not simply responsible for storing the firearms seized, they are responsible for safeguarding the condition of the guns, as well. In some cases, like in Clarion County, this will require the purchase and installation of a dehumidifier to prevent damage to the guns, as well as regular maintenance to preserve them.

Munsee already has a plan for preserving the guns that he seizes.

“Once a month, I’ll have to send a deputy in there with an oily rag to wipe the guns down, because I’m safekeeping these guns for maybe up to three years,” noted Munsee.

Foy said that his department realizes the importance of taking care of the guns that they seize.

“I’m a big gun person, so I pride myself on taking care of my guns, let alone someone else’s. I get it. Some of the guns we get are collectible. We wrap them when we transport them, and we try to be gentle with them, just like our own weapons,” said Foy.

The uncertainty of how long the guns will be stored is also a concern for the sheriff’s departments to consider.

Once a judge makes the decision to grant a PFA, he can set the terms of the PFA and the length of the PFA, up to a maximum of three years.

Nevertheless, things can become even more complicated if a person whose guns have been seized under a PFA order commits a crime or is committed under a civil or involuntary psychiatric commitment, commonly known as “a 302,” according to Gotwald.

“There are still all kinds of loopholes and gray areas. Sometimes we can get stuck storing guns for far more than three years,” Gotwald said.

According to Munsee, another concern is how to handle households where there are guns owned by more than one individual.

“Do I take their word for it, or do I have to do a background check to see who they belong to? And, right now, in Pennsylvania, if I were to buy a gun today, it might take a year and a half to get that all caught up, so it comes up in my name.”

Munsee noted that tracking a gun’s legal owner can be complicated.

An additional problem for the sheriff’s departments is tracking the individual being served with the PFA.

Gotwald said that can also be complicated for authorities.

“There are challenges out there that people don’t look at. Sometimes you just know a name without a date of birth or social security number, and there’s more than one person with that name. Sometimes you may only have a nickname to go on. There’s just a lot of stipulations in there that could punish other people if the right information isn’t all available,” he explained.

While there are still some questions about how exactly Act 79 will play out once it comes into effect, some of the details are being ironed out in early March at the annual Pennsylvania Sheriffs’ Association Conference.

In the meantime, the local sheriff’s departments will continue making plans for expansion of weapons storage, as well as the increased man-hours that will be required for taking, photographing, logging, cleaning, maintaining, and returning guns as required under the new law, and how to pay for it all.

Foy believes the county will be responsible for paying for the expenses incurred as a result of Act 79.

“I think generally it’s going to be the county who has to pay for it all. I know there are talking that Harrisburg is going to have to come up with some money, possibly, and to me, that’s only fair. There’s only so much money to go around,” Foy said.

Generally, Act 79 seems to have created a great deal of concern over how it will be enacted.

Both Munsee and Gotwald have indicated frustration with the new law.

“The whole bill is one of those things, if you’re against it, you’re labeled as a woman-hating person, but it was just not thought out well enough,” Munsee said.

“There could have been some tweaking on it that could have made it better for us to have to take the guns, and that’s my complaint.”

Gotwald added that “It’s just going to become a nightmare for a lot of departments.”


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