Silent Witness (copy) (copy)

Silhouettes are carried by volunteers and family members to represent each of the people killed in domestic violence across South Carolina during the annual Silent Witness ceremony at the Statehouse. File/Grace Beahm/Staff

South Carolina hailed reforms passed two years ago to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers in a state where the lion's share of intimate-partner killings involve a firearm. But with little tracking of how judges apply the ban and no mechanism for removing guns from offenders' homes, it's nearly impossible to tell whether the law is working. 

State law now includes a lifetime gun ban for the worst abusers, and those convicted of other serious felonies against their loved ones can lose their firearms for up to a decade. But the law gives judges discretion whether to impose the prohibition in misdemeanor domestic violence cases, which make up the overwhelming majority of abuse crimes that pass through the state's judicial system. 

There is no simple way for the public to determine how often judges in lower-level courts are barring abusers from buying or keeping guns. The state's court administration refused to release any information on South Carolina's domestic violence caseload without a formal motion and approval from the state Supreme Court. That means people must inquire county by county for answers. And several jurisdictions, including Charleston County's magistrate courts, confirmed they are not monitoring those numbers.

What's more, even when the gun prohibition is imposed, there appears to be no formal system for ensuring offenders are getting rid of their firearms. Several police agencies contacted by The Post and Courier said they haven't been asked to make sure offenders' homes are gun free. 

“I am not aware of us having to go do that,” Mount Pleasant Police Inspector Chip Googe said.

The state's push to reform and strengthen its domestic violence law came in reaction to The Post and Courier’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative series “Till Death Do Us Part,” which explored why South Carolina led the nation in the rate of women killed by men. The 2014 series revealed that more than 300 women had been killed in domestic violence over a decade while state lawmakers did little to stem the bloodshed. Guns were the weapon of choice in nearly seven out of every 10 domestic killings of women during that time.

The state has since dropped to No. 5 on the most-deadly list, but the gun trend has held steady. Nearly 70 percent of the state’s 39 domestic homicide victims last year died of gunshot wounds, according to the S.C. Attorney General’s annual Silent Witness tally, a commemoration of those who died.

Among them was Shannon DiTillio, just 22 years old and pregnant when her ex-boyfriend shot her in the face and left her body in an empty lot in Horry County. He was the father of her young daughter and, two days later, was arrested for abusing his current girlfriend.

The danger posed by abusers with access to guns was further underscored on Nov. 5 when a troubled man with a history of domestic violence opened fire at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, killing 26 worshipers and wounding 20 more. Domestic assaults against his wife and her son while he was in the military should have kept him from buying a gun under federal law. But the Air Force failed to report his convictions to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, enabling him to purchase multiple firearms. 

A lack of data

Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said many places across the nation struggle with gaps between intent and execution when it comes to gun bans. Having the prohibition on paper is not enough; it takes courts, prosecutors, police and advocates working together to follow through, he said. 

"The bottom line is: Getting guns out of the hands of abusers takes effort," he said. "It takes the right legal process, but it also takes implementation and enforcement. Without that, these things don't happen."

Sara Barber, executive director of the S.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said South Carolina's gun ban for abusers was an important first step toward better protecting Palmetto State victims. But advocates have been told by court officials that the state lacks a centralized way of monitoring how judges are applying the law, she said. 

"I was really disappointed to hear that we are not tracking this in any way," she said. "I would think you would need to know that to see how effective the law is. It's frustrating."

Becky Callaham, who runs the Safe Harbor network of domestic violence shelters in the Upstate, called the lack of data "maddening," and said uncertainty just raises the potential risks for victims.

The Post and Courier contacted several regional courts in the past week, and only the city of Charleston could readily provide data on the number of cases in which a judge imposed a gun ban when given discretion.

Of the 386 domestic violence cases adjudicated through the city's municipal court since 2015, 46 resulted in convictions. Available paperwork showed the gun ban was imposed in at least 34 of those cases, but court officials suspect that number was higher. That's because city prosecutors have a policy of automatically requesting that offenders be banned from keeping or buying guns in all domestic violence cases, city spokesman Jack O'Toole said.

When those bans are imposed, forms are submitted to the state for inclusion in the criminal background check system used for firearm purchases. The State Law Enforcement Division also has begun tracking those forms, spokesman Thom Berry said, but SLED could not immediately determine how many abusers have been flagged so far for gun prohibitions.

While the background check may stop someone from buying a gun, it does nothing about the firearms already in a person's home. And that concerns Larry Martin, a former Republican state senator from Pickens who was instrumental in passing the domestic violence reform law. 

Martin pushed for the firearms ban despite major opposition from gun rights advocates, and that likely cost him his Senate seat when he lost his re-election bid the following year after 38 years in office. Martin said he believes judges should require a law enforcement search of offenders' properties for guns if they can't show they have voluntarily complied with the law.

“It would give me concern that they’re taking everyone’s word for it,” Martin said.

Duffie Stone, 14th Circuit solicitor and a member of the Governor’s Task Force on Domestic Violence, said the new law makes it illegal for some convicted abusers to possess guns or ammunition, and they can face prison time if they are caught with firearms. But it doesn’t require that they physically surrender their firearms to any person or entity, Stone said.

“There is no provision for forfeiture or seizure of guns,” he said. 

Horowitz, of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said some places are doing more. In Kings County, Washington, abusers must sign a form under penalty of law showing that they have purged guns from their possession. And California will send a state team out to remove guns from the homes of abusers who fail to comply with their ban, he said.  

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Get the best of The Post and Courier, handpicked and delivered to your inbox every morning.

Reach Glenn Smith at 843-937-5556. Follow him on Twitter @glennsmith5.

Jennifer Berry Hawes is a member of the Watchdog and Public Service team who worked on the newspaper's Pulitzer-Prize winning investigation, "Till Death Do Us Part."