A controversial ordinance to prosecute misdemeanor domestic violence cases in Las Vegas without confiscating the guns of convicted defendants came one step closer to approval on Monday, despite the objections of domestic violence prevention and gun control advocacy groups.
The recommending committee, a three-person panel of City Council members, voted unanimously to push the proposal to the full, seven-member council on Wednesday, although the committee did not formally issue an opinion on the ordinance.
Instead council members Michele Fiore, Stavros Anthony and Brian Knudsen said the entire council should discuss the proposal’s fate even though Knudsen initially sought to delay the bill for 30 days to investigate its “longer-term implications.”
The state Supreme Court ruled a month ago that a misdemeanor domestic violence offense is a “serious” crime and entitled defendants to a jury trial, pointing to a 2015 state law that requires convicted individuals to give up their firearms.
Since then, Las Vegas has been scrambling to address a logistical dilemma: Las Vegas Municipal Court was not built to try some 5,000 misdemeanor domestic violence cases it handles each year. There are no jury boxes or administration, nor is there a means to summon a jury pool. Municipal courts are also not authorized by state law to hold jury trials. The cities of Henderson and North Las Vegas face similar burdens.
Now Las Vegas city prosecutors, who in the wake of the high court’s decision have been charging domestic violence defendants with the lesser charge of simple battery in order to avoid triggering a jury trial, are pushing to establish a city law called “battery which constitutes domestic violence.”
With the exception of the firearms ban, the city ordinance would mirror all the penalties of domestic violence in state law including mandatory counseling, jail time and sentencing enhancements, according to Senior Deputy City Attorney Martin Orsinelli.
“We know it’s a tourniquet. We know we’re trying to stop the victims’ bleeding but it’s what we got and that’s why we’re suggesting it,” Orsinelli said. “It’s not an easy choice. We understand what (opponents) are saying. We agree with them. But we’re between a rock and a hard place.”
Opponents have accused the city of trying to illegally circumvent the state statute that protects victims and of weakening a safety net in a state where domestic violence already routinely ranks high for domestic violence in the U.S.
“We cannot support moving backwards,” said Liz Ortenburger, CEO of SafeNest, a domestic violence prevention advocacy group. “And taking away the firearm provision does that.”
Some have called for the city to press state lawmakers to convene a special session to address the dilemma, while Wendy Starkweather, a volunteer with gun control group Moms Demand Action, urged the city to work with county and state officials on a fix that prioritizes survivors over government convenience.
Orsinelli said the proposed city ordinance will enable the city to hold defendants accountable until state lawmakers act, adding that any action could be two years away.
“We, as the city attorney’s office, can’t deal with that,” he said. “We need to work now.”