Police Unfairly Punished in Abuse Cases

By Michael Fumento

January 30, 1997
Copyright 1997 Michael Fumento

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Lt. Dale Barsness was truly one of Minneapolis’ finest. A 28-year veteran of the police force, he had just been promoted to head the homicide department. But now he may lose everything, courtesy of our national lawmakers.

A month before the election, Congress approved and President Bill Clinton signed into law a measure sponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D.-N.J., forbidding anyone who has committed a misdemeanor act of domestic abuse from possessing a handgun.

In Barsness’ case, the act in question (details are unknown) occurred in 1991. He pleaded guilty and served his punishment. Yet he is now on a six-month administrative leave while the department decides whether it has any choice but to fire him.

If he loses his job, his ex-wife told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, "it hurts the people who were hurt in the first place: his children and his ex-wife."

Lautenberg and Clinton championed the bill as necessary to protect women, children and other living things, but it was essentially a ball of fluff — 99.9 percent substance-free. Already people who commit domestic felonies are forced to turn in their guns, so by definition the bill only targeted lesser offenders.

In support of the proposal, the White House cited a Justice Department figure that, of the 1.7 million incidents of domestic violence reported each year, 88,000 involve firearms. But that comes out to 5 percent of such incidents, and it doesn’t mean anybody was shot or even that bullets were fired. Considering that almost half of all Americans own guns, guns and domestic violence hardly go hand in hand.

But nobody in Congress had the guts to point this out. The law was passed, and now it’s time to pay the piper. Officers across the country like Barsness are doing the paying — as are the citizens that such police serve and protect.

Police departments are now scouring their files to see if any of their officers were ever convicted of misdemeanor domestic abuse — 10 years ago, 20, 30, it doesn’t matter. Once a conviction is found, the officer may be fired or reassigned to a permanent desk job.

It hardly seems fair to take away a cop’s livelihood because of something he did a decade ago, even as the average time served for murder in this country is about six years. It is even more unfair to slap him or her with penalties that were unforeseeable when the officer pleaded guilty.

How would you feel if a new law mandated that the speeding ticket you pleaded guilty to 15 years ago now results in your license being revoked or your car impounded? You might wish you’d gone to court and fought that ticket, huh? Picture Clinton saying: "I feel your pain — but it’s too late, sucker!"

The Constitution clearly forbids laws that make something a crime after the act has already been committed. But for some reason, penalties slapped on after a crime has been committed is a shadier area.

Further, though the law was billed as a crime-fighting measure, in practice it may impact only crimefighters themselves. (It might also be applied to soldiers.)

"It’s being unfairly applied to our people since we’re the only ones with the capacity to check our people and take our guns away," said Sgt. Bill Clayton, a Denver cop and head of the Denver County Police Protection Association. "For us, it’s the tools of the trade, like taking a hammer away from a carpenter," he told me. For other people who have committed past acts of misdemeanor abuse, he says, "There’s just no way to enforce it."

Exactly. The new law can be used to take away guns from all people convicted from now on. But even the most ardent gun-control advocates wouldn’t dare call for making lists of domestic abuse violators and systematically ransacking their homes looking for firearms — not that the idea of it doesn’t make them feel warm and tingly all over.

In Denver, two cops with 37 years’ experience between them are in danger of losing their jobs because of the new law. Meanwhile, Clayton points out, "In the state of Colorado, a convicted felon can get a gun after 10 years but if convicted of a misdemeanor domestic abuse, you get a life sentence (preventing you from) carrying a gun."

"I don’t know how they got this (law) through," said Barsness’ ex-wife. "I think there were a million people sleeping."

Maybe, but the lawmakers were wide awake. Clinton fervently backed the bill, and the Senate twice voted for it by a margin of 97-2. House Speaker Newt Gingrich gave it his explicit support.

This truly was a bipartisan act of cowardice and foolishness.


Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on the Clinton administration and on laws and legislation.