Lt. Dale Barsness was truly one of Minneapoliss 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 Clinton signed a law proposed by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D.-N.J.) forbidding anyone who has committed a misdemeanor act of domestic abuse from possessing a handgun.
In Barsnesss case, the act in question (details are unknown) occurred back 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 persons 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 doesnt 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 passed, and now its time to pay the piper. Officers across the country like Dale 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 doesnt 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 cops 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.
"Ah feel your pain - my shins are KILLING me!"
The Constitution clearly forbids laws which 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. Thus, while the gun law may still be legal.
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.)
"Its being unfairly applied to our people since were 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, its the tools of the trade, like taking a hammer away from a carpenter," he told me. For other persons who have committed past acts of misdemeanor abuse, he says, "Theres just no way to enforce it."
Exactly. The new law can be used to take away guns from all persons convicted from now on. But even the most ardent gun-control advocates wouldnt dare call for making lists of domestic abuse violators and systematically ransacking their homes looking for firearms — not that the idea of it doesnt 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 ten years but if convicted of a misdemeanor domestic abuse, you get a life sentence [preventing your from] carrying a gun."
"I dont know how they got this [law] through," said Barsnesss 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.