Successfully enforcing firearm surrender

Steven Brandl is working to keep guns out of the hands of people in times of anger. (Photo by by Peter Jakubowski)

When is a law little more than words on paper? When it’s not enforced.

In Wisconsin, when people have domestic-abuse or child-abuse restraining orders put on them, they are required by law to surrender any firearms in their possession to law enforcement personnel or another person approved by the court.

But until recently, this law has not been systematically enforced, says Steven Brandl, associate professor of criminal justice in the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM). The law stops short of requiring law enforcement to confiscate the firearms but does require follow-up to ensure compliance with the firearm surrender requirement, he explains.

In 2012, the Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance turned to Brandl to evaluate its solution – a new firearm surrender protocol. As a pilot program, it was tested in four counties – Winnebago, Sauk, Waushara and Outagamie – in 2010 and 2011. Before rolling it out statewide, Brandl was asked to evaluate the implementation and provide information that would help other counties as the protocol expanded.

Brandl is an expert in issues related to firearm possession. In his landmark study on the Milwaukee gun market, funded by the Joyce Foundation, he found that Milwaukee’s illegal gun market was fueled by Badger Outdoors – a former West Milwaukee gun shop – and that people who were legally prohibited from buying or possessing guns had easy access to them.

In the Office of Justice Assistance pilot program, law enforcement and court procedures were created and implemented that specified the particulars of how firearms were to be surrendered by restraining-order respondents. The purpose was to create a process by which the law could be enforced.

The results were clear: the pilot program was a success, Brandl says. “In addition to guns being surrendered, the protocol required minimal court time and no additional significant costs to law enforcement agencies.” The counties were initially concerned they’d be overwhelmed with work, he explains, but that was not the case.

Brandl’s evaluation also noted victim advocates’ support of the new protocol. “The protocol made victims feel safer and may have enhanced their actual safety,” Brandl says. “The point is to prevent guns from being in the hands of a person in times of rage and anger.”