Domestic violence disproportionately impacts Utah’s homicide rates, especially when compared to national averages. In some years, more than half of Utah homicides have a connection to domestic violence, while nationally in a given year less than twenty percent of homicides connect to domestic violence.
Many of Utah’s domestic violence homicides involve firearms, and studies find that the presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation exponentially increases the risk of homicide.
Unfortunately, a substantial increase in domestic violence incidents has become an unintended consequence of the pandemic’s stay at home directives. Calls for police assistance with domestic violence have substantially increased along the Wasatch Front since March.
I specialized in domestic violence prosecutions during the first eight years of my 25 year prosecution career. In 2002, I carried that expertise to federal court where I used the United States code to fight for justice on behalf of victims. To this day, Utah’s federal prosecutors continue to aggressively seek justice on behalf of domestic violence victims. In most cases, we use federal firearms statutes to hold domestic violence offenders accountable.
Simply put, Congress has determined that there are individuals who have no business lawfully possessing firearms — felons, illegal aliens and drug users come to mind. Congress has also prohibited persons with domestic violence tendencies from possessing a firearm, like those who are subject to a protective order or who have previously been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor.
Congress made these laws for a reason. Tragedies happen when such restricted persons possess firearms, and too often the tragedy involves a domestic violence homicide.
This past November, U.S. Attorney General William Barr launched Project Guardian to focus federal agents and prosecutors on reducing gun violence. For example, with the intention of stopping violence before it starts, federal prosecutors target offenders who try to buy guns illegally. Based on Utah’s experience, we can use the law to identify offenders who may pose a particular danger because of domestic violence dynamics, and target them for federal prosecution before they commit a violent act with a firearm.
This week, I announced a series of Project Guardian prosecutions against defendants who allegedly lied in attempted purchases of firearms — or in law enforcement parlance, they are charged with a “lie and try” offense. In one case, a defendant allegedly marked “no” on the purchase form required by federal law when asked if he had ever been convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence. In another, the defendant allegedly lied in denying that he was the subject of a protective order issued by a Utah court to insulate a victim from domestic violence. To be clear, the system worked in these cases. Instant background checks revealed the buyers’ restrictions despite their apparent lies.
This type of unlawful activity happens every week in Utah, and my partners refer dozens of such “lie and try” cases for prosecution decisions through the year. Prosecutors, in turn, review the cases for those that pose the greatest risk of violence.
Many of the Project Guardian cases we bring to federal court involve offenders with domestic violence backgrounds. In the stacks of cases we review, they are a top priority because of the potential violence that we hope to prevent.
Year in and year out, we recognize the volatile dynamics of domestic violence in Utah. During the stay at home directives of this year’s pandemic, we focus even more on preventing violence in Utah homes by enforcing federal law. We hope to ensure that domestic violence victims can stay safe when they stay home.
John W. Huber serves as United States Attorney for the District of Utah. President Obama appointed him to that position in 2015, and President Trump reappointed him in 2017. The United States Senate unanimously confirmed each appointment.