PRENTICE, Wisconsin - The national News21 Initiative brings together a select group of student journalists to produce a major national investigation into a topic of wide interest. This year, News21 has documented the struggle over gun rights and regulations in America. Under the direction of some of the nation's best professional investigative journalists, 29 students from 16 universities have traveled the country to produce text, videos and interactive graphics to tell the story "Gun Wars: The Struggle Over Rights and Regulation in America." Over the next two weeks we will be featuring much of their reporting. You may view the entire project at the News21 website.
Driving home from work on Sept. 11, 2008, Sarah Engle’s mouth watered for her mom’s lasagna. But instead of the smell of marinara sauce wafting from the kitchen to greet her, something grim was waiting.
“When I walked through the door, there was a rifle in my face. ‘You take another step, I will shoot and kill you now,’ James, my ex-boyfriend, said to me … even firing off a shot to prove the gun worked,” she said.
He forced her into the bedroom at gunpoint and sexually assaulted her repeatedly through most of the night and into the morning.
“When I jumped out of bed, he shot me in the face.”
Advocates for domestic violence prevention and victims repeatedly asked Congress and state legislatures for a more streamlined process to keep guns out of the hands of abusers. However, the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups argue firearm ownership and the Second Amendment are counterintuitive to such measures unless abusers have felony charges against them. They cite the necessity to arm oneself for protection against acts of violence.
A News21 investigation found that more people were murdered by intimate partners with guns than by criminals they didn’t know.
Analysis of FBI data showed at least 3,464 people were shot to death in an act of domestic violence from 2008 to 2012, compared to 3,226 people killed in the same period — by guns or other means — by attackers they did not know, or where the relationship to the victim was unknown.
“Everyone is surprised by the numbers,” said Roberta Valente, a policy consultant for the National Domestic Violence Hotline. “Here they are, and we have solutions.”
Six states — Louisiana, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Vermont, Wisconsin and Washington — passed laws to remove firearms from the homes of domestic abusers. Congress is considering at least four bills and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, said he plans to introduce a bill calling for national background checks on gun buyers.
“The Second Amendment is a guarantee of the Constitution. But no constitutional guarantee is absolute,” Blumenthal said. “The two have to be bound – public safety and the safety of a potential victim of domestic violence and a Second Amendment right.”
Along with Blumenthal’s bills, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a July 30 hearing on domestic violence and firearms. Nearly two dozen victims from 16 states were in the audience.
The new law in Wisconsin came too late for Engle.
She woke hours after the attack, oblivious to the blood trickling below her left eye, down her cheek and onto her T-shirt. She felt sluggish and struggled to put one foot in front of the other as she looked around the house she shared in Prentice with her mom, Charlotte Engle. Her ex-boyfriend was gone, along with her car, and the phone lines were cut.
She paused and thought: Where is my mom?
The doorway to Charlotte Engle’s room was barricaded with the green couch from the living room. Sarah Engle could barely muster the strength to pull it away from the wall to slip inside.
“I saw my mom sitting on the floor. She was very relaxed almost. She wasn’t taped or anything. I grabbed her hand and I remember it was very cold. I said ‘Mom, I am going to go get help. I am going to get help!’”
Shoeless, she walked, fell, then crawled down their gravel driveway and onto the road. She flagged down a truck. The driver's eyes were big as he took in her face, immediately taking her to the nearest clinic.
James LaHoud, 41, shot and killed Charlotte Engle that night in 2008, and left her daughter, now 40, with scars she will bear for the rest of her life. The worst of them, she said, is the thought that everything might have been prevented.
She filed a temporary order of protection against LaHoud the first year into their relationship after he threw a shoe at her. LaHoud was barred from owning or possessing a firearm until May 11, 2009, exactly eight months after Charlotte Engle’s death.
His first wife and an ex-girlfriend previously filed for protective orders against LaHoud, who also faced dropped domestic violence charges – all before he met Sarah Engle.
“He shouldn’t have had a gun at all. He didn't have a gun permit, didn't go through a background check and didn't have gun safety training of any kind,” she said.
LaHoud is currently serving life plus 80 years in a Wisconsin prison.
Engle is part of a growing community of victims.
Melanie Lyon ran away from from her abusive ex-husband, Ronald Lee Haskell, 33. On July 16 he followed Lyon to Spring, Texas, where he dressed as a FedEx worker and forced his way into the home of her sister, Katie Stay, looking for his wife.
He held Stay, her husband and five children at gunpoint and killed all but one family member execution-style when they wouldn’t disclose where Lyon was hiding. Cassidy Stay, 5, played dead and called 911 after Haskell left. Lyon was not in the home at the time of the shootings.
Haskell had a history of domestic violence. He allegedly beat Lyon in front of their children, dragging her by her hair around their home in Logan, Utah. He was arrested in 2008 for domestic violence, and Lyon filed an order of protection in 2013 in the midst of their divorce.
“The right to bear arms is not more important than protecting a woman’s life,” said Valente, the violence hotline policy consultant. “Right now what we have isn’t enough.”
Haskell is in jail awaiting trial for the murders of the Stay family.
In a survey taken over eight weeks this spring 2014 by the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 16 percent of the 4,721 anonymous callers to the hotline said their partners had access to a gun and it frightened them.
When Congress re-authorized the Violence Against Women Act last year, it included a provision that keeps most people from buying or possessing firearms while subject to full protective orders filed by intimate partners. At the insistence of the gun lobby, the law does not allow confiscation of guns from people under temporary orders, since they have not a chance to challenge the order in court.
Each state determines the duration of gun confiscations under the law, and where relinquished firearms go. In some cases, the sheriff's department holds the guns, in others it's a family member.
In California, anyone served with a temporary protective order has 24 hours to turn over any weapons. In San Mateo County, south of San Francisco, authorities ensure firearms are removed from subject homes. On the other end of the spectrum, Kentucky passed a law to expedite concealed carry permits for victims of domestic violence.
Chelsea Parsons co-authored two Center for American Progress studies on the deadly effects of guns in homes with domestic violence, research that contributed to state legislation on the issue. She said it's important "for voices from the advocacy world to get involved and really make sure that law enforcement and lawmakers are developing policies and practices."
Things were looking up for Courtney Weaver in January 2010. Her breakup with her boyfriend had turned into a surprise engagement and the holidays the 23-year-old had spent alone in her Arcata, California apartment were behind her.
Not everything was perfect. The possessive boyfriend was now her possessive fiance, so on Jan. 15, 2010, she planned to take a break by attending the concert of a friend and fellow blues musician.
She said she was putting on makeup when she heard rustling. Her fiance, Kenneth Fiaui had been attacked by her cat. She heard him cock his gun.
She had to get him water. Anything to calm him down, keep him inside, where he wouldn't hurt anyone.
"I was talking with him, trying to figure out what was going on and understand what he was planning on doing with his gun," she said. He lunged for the kitchen door, where Weaver was standing. He fired.
A hollow-point bullet exploded through her right arm, passing straight into her right upper lip. Her jaw was shattered, she lost five teeth, and her tongue was cut in multiple places by bullet shards.
The initial surgeries to reconstruct her face and arm took 27 hours over the course of 12 days, after which, Weaver still had to return to her apartment to clean up her own blood. "It was so … humiliating," she said.
As she lowered herself to the floor to mop up the blood, something caught her eye: guns left behind by her fiance, propped up against the fridge.The police did not take them.
The anger she felt followed her to Washington state, where she moved to complete her surgeries. She became a volunteer advocate in Washington's fight to pass stricter domestic violence laws.
Before this year, Washington state law let judges decide when and how a firearm should be removed from a home where domestic violence had occurred.
State Rep. Roger Goodman, a longtime advocate for reforming Washington’s domestic violence laws, said new legislation was 12 years in the making. In 2010, Goodman convened a workgroup to forge a comprehensive package of bills that included taking firearms from people subject to protective orders, no-contact orders and restraining orders.
The package bill – the first of its kind in 30 years – passed, but without the firearm removal measure, which would allow a judge to order firearms out of the house of a domestic abuser.
He tried again in 2011, 2012 and 2013. The bill finally passed unanimously this year through Washington's Legislature.
"I didn't believe it," said Weaver, who attended the vote. "It took me a few weeks to actually believe that it was going to get signed into law."
Goodman called his bill “arguably the most important bill we passed this entire legislative session,” even though he had to make concessions to opponents. The final version of the bill tightened the standards for gun seizure: A court must not only approve a protective order but find the accused to be a “credible threat” before ordering guns removed.
Goodman said the compromise was the only way to get the bill passed.
"I don't know if media attention and the testimony of victims made as much of a difference as the internal politics of the Legislature," he said. "This is an election year, and I don't think anyone running would like to be accused of allowing domestic abusers to keep their weapons."
National groups such as Moms Demand Action, Everytown for Gun Safety and Americans for Responsible Solutions combined their efforts with state advocates in a strategy that rebrands domestic-violence-related gun seizure as a public safety issue, rather than just taking guns.
Sarah Kenney, director of public policy for the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, has been working on legislation since a 2009 state panel on domestic violence recommended that judges and police remove guns from abusers subject to protective orders. Five years later, the provision — outlining a step-by-step process for enforcement — passed.
It was a notable success, Kenney said. Before, firearms advocacy was "political suicide.” Now the dialogue is shaped around "community safety." The success, she said, is thanks in part to large-scale organizations "elevating the debate about violence against women and firearms at the national level."
While Everytown for Gun Safety has varying levels of engagement in each state, an official there said the organization is working at the grassroots level to help push for legislation.
“Here’s what I know: We worked closely with domestic violence prevention advocates to help pass new laws in six states, and in all of those states, the laws passed either unanimously or nearly unanimously,” said Brina Milikowsky, the Everytown director of strategy and partnership.
Those bills were bipartisan, and signed by governors from both parties. Republican Gov. Scott Walker said Wisconsin's Stopping Abuse Fatalities through Enforcement Act will help the state “do better in protecting the victims, and potential victims, of domestic abuse and connect them with crucial services, when they need our help the most.”
Riding this wave, national groups and advocates are now looking at closing loopholes in the federal law that leave domestic violence victims vulnerable to dating partners and stalkers. They account “overwhelmingly” for the number of domestic homicides in the U.S., said Parsons of the Center for American Progress, which has a record of at least 11,986 stalking convictions in 20 states.
A News21 analysis found that dating relationships accounted for at least 38 percent of homicides with a gun from 2008 to 2012.
Parsons co-authored “Women Under the Gun,” which cites the Protecting Domestic Violence and Stalking Victims Act as one of the measures that might decrease the number of domestic homicides. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, includes provisions that would restrict abusive dating partners' and stalkers' ability to own a gun.
The bill is stalled in Congress with no expected action this year. The National Rifle Association wrote senators in June saying Klobuchar’s bill “manipulates emotionally compelling issues such as ‘domestic violence’ and ‘stalking’ simply to cast as wide a net as possible for federal firearm prohibitions.”
Sarah Engle’s scars from the day LaHoud shot her in 2008 are still obvious. The left side of her face is paralyzed. The bullet shattered the skull on the left side of her face.
Even with continuous speech and cognitive rehabilitation, Engle’s memory will never quite be what it used to, and her speech slurs at times. Still, she has spent this year talking with other victims, writing columns and testifying in support of Wisconsin’s SAFE Act.
The SAFE Act “gives teeth” to state and federal law, said state Sen. Jerry Petrowski, a co-sponsor. Under the law, courts can issue arrest warrants if accused abusers fail to surrender all their firearms.
One victory under her belt, Engle has set her sights on the national level. On June 18, she told her story to more than 200 people at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., sharing the stage with former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat who was the victim of a high-profile shooting attack in Tucson in 2011.
Giffords was in town with the group she founded after her attack, Americans for Responsible Solutions, to delivered 37,000 petition signatures to the U.S. Senate asking for a hearing on domestic violence and firearms.
“Dangerous people with guns are a threat to women. Criminals with guns. Stalkers with guns. Abusers with guns. That makes gun violence a women's issue. For mothers. For families. For me and you,” Giffords said.
Engle and Giffords snapped a photo together before they asked the audience to call their lawmakers and encourage them to pass Klobuchar’s bill.
“I’ll be here as long as they need me,” Engle said. “Something good came from something so bad. (The SAFE Act) could be the beginning to the end of domestic violence in Wisconsin. Now we just need to work on the rest of the U.S.”
Brittany Elena Morris is a News21 Hearst Fellow.