Tracking down the guns of domestic abusers

ROSEAU, Minn. (KARE11) “Because people get killed!”

Roseau County District Court Judge Donna Dixon is blunt when asked why she takes enforcing domestic violence gun transfer orders so seriously.

“Victims get killed, law enforcement officers get killed or they get injured,” she added.

Roseau County borders Canada, a six-hour drive north from of the Twin Cities. It is the home of snowmobile manufacturer Polaris.

KARE 11’s investigation also found it is home to the most aggressive court in the state when it comes to getting guns away from domestic abusers.

Tracking down missing guns

“I’m currently contacting a couple people that need to file their firearms affidavits,” Senior Court Clerk Kristine Oslund said as she walked from her desk to the court records room.

Oslund was spending the morning trying to track down two men who are subject to domestic violence Orders For Protection that by law require them to get rid of their guns.

Minnesota’s Domestic Violence Firearm Act mandates that after an Order For Protection (OFP) civil hearing, if a judge determines that domestic abuse has occurred, the alleged abuser has three days to transfer firearms to someone else or to law enforcement for as long as the order is in effect. In addition, the law requires the abuser to file an affidavit with the court detailing where the guns went along with their make and serial number.

The two men Oslund has been attempting to contact had failed to file the gun transfer affidavit.

“I’ve tracked down one and called him,” Oslund said. “I did indicate to him I would have to bring him to court to explain why he hasn’t filed it.”

It’s a no-nonsense tone set somewhat ironically by a feisty judge whose big laugh regularly echoes through the courthouse.

“It’s what we do,” Judge Dixon chuckled. She says she was surprised KARE 11 wanted to interview her about how she handles domestic violence gun transfer cases. “It’s just what we do.”

But what Judge Dixon does appears to be a far cry from standard operating procedure in other Minnesota courts.

Gun transfers by the numbers

KARE 11’s on-going investigation “A failure to check” found most courts in the state repeatedly fail to enforce the gun transfer law.

KARE 11 spent weeks pouring through thousands of individual domestic violence OFP cases.

Because the Minnesota Supreme Court refused to release bulk data listing all OFP cases, there is no way to tell exactly how many of them specifically claim guns were part of the domestic violence.

However, KARE 11 discovered case after case in which a firearm had been used or threatened, a judge had issued an order that automatically required the abuser to get rid of his guns, but no transfer affidavit was ever filed.

What’s more, unlike what happens in Roseau, there’s no evidence courts in those cases followed up.

“They tell him to surrender it, and then no one even checks,” domestic violence survivor Desiree Nelson said. “No one tried. No one said, ‘Hey let’s go make sure if he’s still got it.’”

Desiree’s case was handled by Ramsey County.

KARE 11’s analysis of 2016 state court records revealed Ramsey County had 304 domestic violence OFP cases that automatically required guns to be transferred. Firearm transfer affidavits were filed just seven times. That’s only 2 percent.

There were 2,937 similar OFP cases statewide. Only 119 of them had a firearm transfer affidavit on file with the court.

That means 96 percent of the time, there’s no record the abusers gave up a gun. In 48 counties, there is not a single record of a domestic abuser transferring a firearm.

Roseau is much more aggressive

When KARE 11 poured over the court data, one fact jumped out. Roseau County, with a population of roughly 16,000, is tied with Hennepin County, population 1.2 million, for having the most gun transfer affidavits on file in the entire state.

Hennepin County had 598 OFP cases in 2016 which automatically required gun transfers. Roseau had just 15.

But both counties had 11 transfer affidavits on file.

“We make it a priority,” Judge Dixon said, “because we’ve determined as a community we want to make it a priority.”

Since some abusers may not have guns, transfer affidavits aren’t always necessary. But in Roseau, they were filed in 73 percent of the OFP cases. In Hennepin County it was just two percent. The statewide average is four percent.

Questions and verification

Judge Dixon won’t comment on what other courts do or don’t do. But she says what’s worked for her court is asking from the bench a key question: “Do you have any firearms in your possession or in your home?”

Then, and this is what’s different from what we found taking place in other courts, she has set up a computer alert system with her clerks.

The alert puts a flag on each case to make sure there is follow-up by the clerk within five days after an order is issued to ensure the gun transfer affidavit is actually filed.

“Because I can issue all the orders in the world,” Dixon said, “but if nobody follows up on them it doesn’t do any good.”

“Why is that follow-up important?” asked KARE 11 investigative reporter A.J. Lagoe.

“Well, because domestic violence and guns are, you know, a big thing,” the judge replied. “Not only for the victims of the domestic violence, but it also raises the danger for law enforcement if they’re going into domestic situations where there are guns present.”

The day KARE 11 interviewed Judge Dixon, the danger to police was making headlines. The Washington Post detailed how a Maryland police officer was murdered by a domestic abuser who had ignored repeated orders to surrender his guns.

“If there is firearms involved in the domestic violence, if there’s firearms in the home even, there’s just that chance,” Judge Dixon said.

That chance – that a bad situation can escalate to a deadly one with just the pull of a trigger -- is not a chance the Roseau judge is willing to take.

“We’ve made it a priority to make certain that those guns aren’t there.”

If you are the victim of domestic violence and are looking for help, here's the number for the Minnesota Day One Crisis Line: 1-866-223-1111.