(PA) Victims' legacy may be a change in gun laws


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Mark Tyson
July 21, 2003, 09:41 PM
Victims' legacy may be a change in gun laws

Schuylkill killings are cited in an attempt to take firearms from abusers.

Copyright 2003 The Morning Call, Inc.

Morning Call (Allentown, PA)

July 20, 2003 Sunday FIRST EDITION

A Schuylkill County case in which police say a man savagely shot to death his estranged wife, their preschool son and two friends may prompt changes in the way state laws deal with firearms in protection-from-abuse orders.

The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence is citing the case in proposed changes to the state's domestic abuse laws -- including a bill that would automatically prohibit people under protection orders from possessing guns.

State law requires police to confiscate firearms used in an incident that prompts a protection-from-abuse order. But prohibiting the subject of an order from having other guns is more difficult. A judge must hold a hearing, in which the subject's side is heard, before deciding whether to ban all guns.


Police say that on Aug. 15, Michael H. Bechtel, 27, of Mahanoy Township used a pistol to kill his estranged wife, Raienhna, 23; their 3-year-old son, Jacob; and two of Raienhna's friends in their Morea home. Bechtel then shot himself in the head in an unsuccessful suicide attempt, police say.

At the time of the shooting, Bechtel was under a protection-from-abuse order. A lawsuit Raienhna Bechtel's mother filed says the handgun he used was confiscated by state police under a protection-from-abuse order but then returned to him. Police have acknowledged returning the gun to Michael Bechtel.

Raienhna Bechtel's mother, Joan Starr of Girardville, would like the bill to be known as Raienhna and Jacob's Bill -- after her slain daughter and grandson.

"We tally domestic violence homicides, and this was a terrible one, as are they all," coalition spokeswoman Judy Yupcavage said. "We cited it because four people died with a gun. The law isn't clear on how the guns are relinquished and who takes them.

"It's a matter of getting the guns away from defendants and keeping them away," she said. "We're looking to strengthen the law to do that. Often law isn't enacted until tragic circumstances."

Yupcavage has talked with Starr.

"She is interested in doing whatever she can to be a voice for her daughter and grandson," Yupcavage said.

Guns and domestic violence

Bechtel's lawyers last week dropped an attempt to have statements he made to police suppressed, and the case is scheduled to go to trial in mid-September.

Schuylkill County District Attorney Frank Cori is seeking the death penalty against Bechtel, who faces multiple charges, including homicide.

Starr said changes in the law would be a small comfort to her.

"I think that's a wonderful idea," she said. "I think that if somebody's beating on his wife, he sure shouldn't have a gun put into his hands. Four people wouldn't be dead if he [Bechtel] didn't have that gun."

The depth of the problem is difficult to estimate: Neither state nor federal authorities keep records of how often a person under a PFA uses a gun against those he has bullied.

But people using firearms are the leading cause of domestic violence homicides in Pennsylvania and in the United States, the coalition says in a March legislative position paper.

The coalition, a private nonprofit organization, administers the contract for domestic violence services in the state and provides public policy development, training and technical assistance, public information, and education.

It says that 159 people died as a result of domestic violence in Pennsylvania last year, most of them by guns.

"I think advocates have long been aware of the tragic link between guns and domestic violence," said Kiersten Stewart, director of Public Policy at the Family Violence Prevention Fund, a private, nonprofit advocacy group based in San Francisco. "If there is a gun in the home, a victim of domestic violence and her children are much more likely to die. It's that simple."

A judge's discretion

A federal law called the Brady Indicator, or Brady Law, prohibits people under PFAs from buying weapons.

But it's up the judge issuing the PFA as to who gets to keep weapons. The judge can check off a box on the state protection order form that would bar domestic violence defendants from having any weapons.

"There is a provision for that to happen, but it is at a judge's discretion," said Pat Kwetkauskie, training/education coordinator for the Domestic Violence Service Center in Wilkes-Barre. "There is no standard for getting guns back or keeping the guns away."

The person requesting the protection order may need to raise the issue for a judge to bar the offender from having weapons.

"Some judges can be very difficult," Kwetkauskie said. "She [the victim] may need to know make and model and serial number of the gun."

Otherwise, state law says that only those firearms used or threatened to be used may be confiscated as a result of a PFA.

"We have a gun culture in this state," Kwetkauskie said. "In Pennsylvania, judges are less likely tobar weapons."

The lack of clear standards can lead to confusion over enforcement.

Sally Casey, executive director of Schuylkill County Women In Crisis, said "We have some good laws on the books, but we fall short on implementation. This is one of those questionable areas."

Bechtel's case

Those pitfalls are illustrated by the Bechtel case.

Police say they had no right to keep Bechtel's gun because he had not used it in the incident that prompted his wife to seek the protection order.

But Schuylkill County Judge D. Michael Stine included firearms prohibitions in his order, according to Raienhna Bechtel's family's lawsuit.

"[The] Defendant is prohibited from possessing, transferring or acquiring any other firearms license or weapons for the duration of this order," said the one-year PFA, which was issued March 18, 2002.It also ordered that Bechtel turn over any weapons to the sheriff, and that they not be returned until further order of the court. There was no further order of the court.

Cpl. Scott Price of the state police barracks at Frackville, who is named in the suit, declined to comment.

Raienhna Bechtel got the order four days after police seized a 9mm pistol when called to the home to quell a domestic dispute.

They returned the gun to Michael Bechtel in April 2002.

On Aug. 15, Bechtel allegedly use the gun to kill his wife and son and Raienhna's friends David Barkus, 30, of Delano, and Kristen L. Tragus, 34, of Lost Creek.

Starr in April sued police, Schuylkill County and the state for failing to follow that order and prevent the murders of her daughter and grandson. The suit says police violated state and federal law by returning the gun.

Starr's lawyer, Donald J. Feinberg of Philadelphia, said that under the terms of the protection order, Bechtel could not have bought a gun.

"The only way he could he could have gotten the gun was for somebody to break the law," he said.

Legislative proposals

The coalition's proposed changes would automatically "prohibit a person under a protection order from possessing, storing, transporting or acquiring guns or ammunition, including those not used or threatened to be used during the commission of an abusive act."

The coalition presented its suggested changes to state law in a series of hearings in March before state Rep. Tom Gannon, R-Delaware, who was chairman of the state Judiciary Committee this past session.

"I had a series of meetings, bringing in people -- Women Against Violence, Women Against Rape and the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence -- who had issues to get dialogue going," Gannon said. "We went through the suggestions and came up with bills."

The coalition's proposals, among others, are being circulated as a package for sponsorship.

"It's in the stream, in the process of being drafted," Gannon said. "There will be a time when we will try to move these at one time, probably in the fall or early winter."

Some local legislators favor the change.

"Those are very volatile situations," said state Rep. Doug Reichley, R-Lehigh. "We're attempting to relieve that possibility that someone in the throes of a real emotional trauma is going to act in a most dangerous manner.

"Those freedoms to have firearms can be limited during the length of the PFA to make sure there will be no harmful activity.

His colleague, state Rep. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, concurred.

"Limited access to firearms in that respect would be prudent," he said. "There's a compelling interest on the part of Pennsylvania government to provide additional protections."

State Rep. Neal P. Goodman, D-Schuylkill, in whose legislative district the Schuylkill County murders occurred, did not return several telephone calls.

Feinberg said he wonders whether changes in the state's domestic abuse laws will help.

"We have some good laws in place to protect innocent people," he said. "But they are only as effective as the police who enforce them."

But Stewart of the Family Violence Prevention Fund, said "What's new is that we finally have the first laws on the books that say if you abuse your partner, you don't get to have a gun.

"Now what we need is the funding and the political will to close the loopholes that still allow thousands of domestic abusers to get and keep guns," Stewart said.

PENNSYLVANIA LAW

Existing Pennsylvania law (the Protection from Abuse Act) requires that police seize weapons used or threatened to be used in the domestic violence incident(s) giving rise to protection from abuse orders.

PROPOSED CHANGE

The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence proposes the confiscation of all firearms, ammunition and weapons, including those not used or threatened to be used during an abusive act, from a perpetrator when a protection order is served by law enforcement.

Source: Amy C. Sousa, policy specialist for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

chris.parker@mcall.com

610-379-3224

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Old Fuff
July 21, 2003, 10:19 PM
The problem is .... It is not unusual for a spiteful wife or girl friend to claim abuse as a way to get back at the man. Protection Orders are usually issued on the woman's word without a hearing. There may be substance to her charges, and then again they're may not. Confiscating property, guns included, shouldn't be allowed without a hearing.

Standing Wolf
July 21, 2003, 11:05 PM
Confiscating property, guns included, shouldn't be allowed without a hearing.

Something about "due process of law" from the good old days? Hmmmmm... I dunno. We're probably too modern for that kind of thing these days. </sarcasm>

Desertdog
July 22, 2003, 09:02 PM
If they have to pull the defendant's firearms, they should give the best firearm to to the victim, and send them to training so they will be able to protect themselves.:p

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