You fear for your life in the place you should have been safe — your home.
So you go to the court. You ask for a protection from abuse order. The person who has been hurting or threatening you is served with a piece of paper that spells out exactly what is and isn’t allowed.
That should help. In most cases, according to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, it does. A PFA might anger the recipient. It might make the end of the relationship bitter or awkward. But in most cases, it can put an end to the violence rather than aggravate it.
For cases where firearms are involved, however, that can be different.
According to the PCADV, there were 117 domestic violence deaths in 2017, up 14 percent from the year before. Of those, 78 victims were shot. Since 2008, more than half of those killed in a domestic violence situation each year have died by gun. In 2007, it was still the most common method at 48 percent.
A box on the PFA form asks about weapons. Was a weapon involved? Is there one at the home? Should weapons be collected? Is the defendant someone who has firearms at work?
When Patrick Dowdell of Masontown threatened his wife with a gun last month, she asked for a PFA. She got one. Despite her request for the guns to be taken away, Fayette County District Judge Joseph M. George Jr. didn’t take that step. On Wednesday, his office became a crime scene when Dowdell opened fire there, injuring four people before being killed by police .
George’s actions do not stand out because of their glaring rarity. They are all too common. In March, the Tribune-Review found Pennsylvania judges were “hesitant to invoke existing provisions for weapons confiscation in PFAs.” Despite language in state laws saying guns should be taken in certain threatening situations, judges are likely to decline to do so.
This is not a Fayette problem. It’s not just happening in Southwestern Pennsylvania. It’s across the commonwealth and it’s not new.
In 2013, a Centre County district judge released a retired state trooper on bail after an attack on his wife. He shot her and himself at the grocery store where she arranged flowers. In 2016, Trooper Landon Weaver arrived at a Huntingdon County home near Altoona, checking on a PFA violation, when he was shot and killed. On Black Friday last year, a Clearfield County woman, her mother and sister were shot by her ex-boyfriend. The ink was barely dry on his PFA. He fled, later shooting himself.
Now some judges say incidents like Dowdell’s shooting make their offices seem insecure. Westmoreland County’s magisterial courts office will be asking commissioners to game out the cost of scanners, metal detectors and sheriff’s department man hours.
In short, having been threatened, the judges are looking for protection from abuse. Let’s hope that, like the majority of people applying for PFAs, they get the help that they need. Let’s hope all of the judges in Pennsylvania do.
Maybe this will make them understand how vulnerable being in such a position can make someone feel, and maybe the next time they see an application with the box checked asking for weapons to be secured, they will remember not just how they feel, but that they would just be enforcing the law.