This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Seven states take guns away from a person covered by a domestic violence protection order. In another 12, judges issuing the orders are explicitly allowed to ask police to seize a gun.
Utah isn't among them.
While federal law bars anyone under a protection order from having, possessing or buying a firearm, it does not set up a mechanism for states to confiscate weapons.
Utah relies on an honor system that assumes a person under a protection order will stay away from firearms - even when there is a record of a threat to use one.
Salt Lake County sheriff's deputies serve more than 1,500 protection orders a year from 3rd District Court, which issues more orders than any other judicial district.
But Lt. Paul Jaroscak, an office spokesman, said the commander who supervises delivery of the orders could not recall a single one in the past four years that required a deputy to take away a firearm.
"That order doesn't say we have to take it away from you, it just says you can't have it," said Jaroscak, which highlights the loophole between federal law and state practice.
The system also applies to Utah's restraining orders, and it can have deadly consequences, as happened Jan. 6 when David L. Ragsdale allegedly fatally shot his wife, Kristy, in a Lehi church parking lot.
A month earlier, Ragsdale had threatened to use a gun to "take care of things" during an altercation. A judge issued a protection order that noted Ragsdale, who kept a 9 mm Glock firearm in the trunk of his BMW, was not to have, possess or transport a weapon.
That prohibition was included in a mutual restraining order the couple agreed to in mid-December. Two weeks later, Ragsdale allegedly used the weapon to kill his wife.
Kristy Ragsdale's family assumed the gun had been taken away, but Lorie Fowlke, Kristy's attorney, said she and her client knew it had not.
"It might have made a difference if he had not had such easy access to a weapon," said Fowlke, who is also a state lawmaker. "Then again, he might just have gotten one from somebody else."
Utah judges assume that a person under a protective order will get rid of any guns, according to Utah State Court spokeswoman Nancy Volmer.
Lehi Police Lt. Harold Terry said a family member or friend is usually put in charge of making sure a restricted person doesn't have access to a gun.
And putting it in a "closet or car or a home that you have control over is not enough," notes Stewart Ralphs, director of the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake.
But no one checks. If a restricted person is later found to be in possession of a weapon, he or she can be arrested. "If you violate the protective order, you go to jail," Terry said.
Getting the gun away
Other states have managed to tip the scale in favor of the safety of domestic violence victims.
California, one of seven states that requires surrender, gives a person 24 hours after receiving a restraining order to hand over a weapon to police or sell it to a firearms dealer. He or she must submit proof that the gun has been relinquished.
Hawaii requires officers to confiscate firearms while serving a protection order, said Lindsay Nichols, staff attorney for the Legal Community Against Violence, a California-based law center focused on prevention of gun violence.
"It puts victims in danger when somebody is in possession of a firearm and then becomes subject to a protective order," Nichols said. ". . . A gun is going to increase the lethality of any violence that is going to occur."
Guns were used in a majority of cases of fatal domestic violence nationwide that involved young couples with protection orders, said Sonia Salari, an associate professor of human development and family studies at the University of Utah, who has studied intimate partner violence.
"Our argument is the [Violence Against Women Act] is supposed to prevent people with protective orders from having firearms and it's not working," Salari said.
One route to a gun - a licensed dealer - is being further closed off by the new federal NICS Improvement Amendments Act.
It provides $1.3 billion in grants for states to improve the FBI database check by dealers for those barred from firearm possession, including anyone under a protection order or convicted of domestic violence, with a juvenile record, or with a mental illness.
Utah already cross-links such records. In 2006, the most recent data available, about 860 gun purchase requests were rejected after Utah's Bureau of Criminal Identification system revealed existing domestic violence misdemeanor convictions or protection orders.
Fowlke said she is mulling legislation to balance the right to be free from violence versus Second Amendment rights. "It's a hard call," she said.
In the Ragsdale case, "the only thing I can think of that might have made a difference is actually confiscating the gun. Maybe we need to look at that."
One noted gun rights advocate in Utah agrees that, in cases like the Ragsdales that involve a credible threat, removing an already-owned firearm may be appropriate.
"The law is the law," said Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council. "If you get a protection order issued against you, you're not supposed to have firearms."
He believes judges and attorneys should take more responsibility to see that the federal prohibition is enforced in domestic violence cases. Judges could order police officers confiscate guns, he said.
But protection orders are often misused in divorce proceedings, Aposhian said, adding: "Before I say pick them all up, I would certainly like something done about those protective orders issued on a whim because they carry with them so much weight to deny a person their lawful right to self-defense."