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New Pa. law aimed to disarm accused domestic abusers within 24 hours. Hundreds in Philly haven’t turned in guns.

Since the law took effect in April, 574 accused domestic abusers in Philadelphia were ordered to hand over their weapons, but only 62 of them complied.

April Saul / File Photograph

Victor Carr Jr.’s parents had enough with their son’s disrespect. If he wasn’t going to behave, they wanted him out.

“He is of age and can’t stay in my house acting all crazy,” his father said.

The Carrs went to court and asked a judge to safeguard them from their 22-year-old son. The judge granted a temporary protection-from-abuse order on Oct. 15 and a final order three days later, banning Carr for a year from his parents’ Overbrook rowhouse.

A new Pennsylvania law, meant to protect victims of domestic violence, also required the son to give up his gun permit and any weapons he had within 24 hours.

So one day later, when he didn’t turn in anything, the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office was notified through a statewide computer system that it needed to investigate.

No one went out to look for him.

Three days after that, according to police, Carr was walking back from a Chinese takeout in West Philadelphia when he didn’t like the way his cousin, James Bishop, was pointing at him and took out a small silver revolver. Police say that Carr shot his cousin in the neck, critically injuring him. Carr was charged with attempted murder.

The failure of the Sheriff’s Office to make sure Carr turned in his gun permit and any firearms was anything but unusual. At the time, 181 people accused of domestic violence hadn’t been visited by deputies — some, even weeks or months after a judge had ordered their weapons relinquished. By Nov. 22, the backlog had grown to 201.

Since the law took effect in April, 574 accused domestic abusers in Philadelphia were ordered to hand over their weapons, but only 62 of them complied.

“I’m really shocked at those figures,” said former State Rep. Marguerite C. Quinn, a Republican from Bucks County who sponsored the bill that ultimately became the domestic-violence law known as Act 79. “Is it a matter of manpower? Is it disrespect of the new law? Is it they are going out and people don’t have guns? I have a domino of questions.”

Surrounding counties have done much better than Philadelphia’s 11% rate of weapons recovery. Montgomery, Chester, Bucks, and Delaware Counties all hovered between 40% and 60%, according to the state Protection From Abuse Database (PFAD), a voluntary tool for law enforcement.

The Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office keeps its own count, but those numbers are even worse: 471 people were ordered to give up their weapons, between April 10 and Oct. 31, but only seven weapons had been confiscated.

“Wow” was Chester County Sheriff Carolyn Welsh’s reaction. Since April, her county has processed 29 protection-from-abuse orders, yielding about 100 weapons.

‘It’s cold out’

Sheriff Jewell Williams touted Act 79 in an April interview with Philadelphia Metro: “Imagine it’s cold out, there’s a family with children that’s just run out of the house with no coats or shoes on to get away from danger,” he said. “We pick them up, we bring the whole family back to the house, we remove the bad guy and the guns and we make it safe.”

Hailed as a rare, bipartisan success in gun legislation, the new law requires that people either convicted of domestic abuse or, like Carr, the subject of a final protection order, turn over their weapons within 24 hours. Failure to do so is a misdemeanor. The change most lauded by victims’ advocates: Defendants can no longer simply turn in firearms to friends or family. They have to go through law enforcement, their lawyer, or a licensed firearms dealer.

Once a judge signs a protection order, the Pennsylvania State Police is notified and posts the information on a computer system accessible to all law enforcement agencies. In Philadelphia, the Police Department is also informed by the courts via email, and officers serve the protection orders, making sure those accused of domestic abuse know they’re required to turn in their weapons.

“We’ve been successful in getting guns that way,” said Inspector Fran Healy, who serves as adviser to acting Police Commissioner Christine M. Coulter, though he could provide no numbers.

When 24 hours have passed without the accused turning in a weapon, local law enforcement is notified.

The Carr case shows how both Philadelphia police and the Sheriff’s Office failed to act.

The police affidavit from the Oct. 22. shooting states that the protection-from-abuse order that Carr’s parents persuaded a judge to issue had not been served. A department spokesperson declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation of the shooting.

The Sheriff’s Office had not started looking for Carr when he is alleged to have shot his cousin. An office spokesperson said the Carr case was not a priority because Philadelphia police had not noted on the computer system whether Carr had a gun in his parent’s house.

‘They don’t have to give us the guns’

So, why has Philadelphia struggled to get defendants to turn in weapons within 24 hours? Depends whom you ask.

According to Paris Washington, chief deputy sheriff, the numbers reflect flaws in both the law and the statewide computer system.

Judges usually evict the alleged abusers from the house, he said. And so, when sheriff’s deputies arrive, many “have left that premise,” he said.

Other times, deputies arrive at a defendant’s house to collect a weapon only to learn the person has not been served by police.

“A woman we went to check on yesterday to see if she had turned in her weapon, she had never been served, so how can she comply with the order if she hasn’t been served? It’s a loophole,” Washington said.

Sheriff’s deputies could serve the orders themselves — as was done prior to Act 79. But Washington said his officers don’t carry the orders while visiting a house because it’s too much paperwork. (Each order is five to seven pages.)

Washington complained that there is no way for him to see in the computer system if the accused has been served by police. But advocates who worked on the law said the system has a box that law enforcement can check to note when an order has been served. They added that Philadelphia police don’t rely on the system.

The Sheriff’s Office said 37 of the 471 people accused of domestic abuse signed affidavits swearing they own no weapons.

There’s another reason for the low numbers of guns turned in. Law enforcement sources familiar with the Sheriff’s Office said that this summer Washington turned off notifications of protection orders that warranted investigation, hoping to reduce the backlog of cases, which resulted in a bigger backlog. Washington said that isn’t true — he just turned off the printer to save money.

“It was generating written copies, ream of copies every day. It was duplicates every day,” Washington said. “We cut off the printing of those [notifications]. We look at them in the system now — and we can eliminate duplication without wasting the public’s resources.”

The backlog began soon after the law went into effect. For at least the first two weeks, a glitch prevented law enforcement agencies from receiving notifications that defendants hadn’t turned in their weapons. The Sheriff’s Office learned of the problem from the Philadelphia police.

“It wasn’t anything that critical because we are communicating with each other," Washington said, "and once they said in a general conversation ‘Are you getting the pings?’ and it was very quickly corrected.”

Once the notifications resumed, Washington said as many as 100 cases were waiting.

In September, Washington created “Operation Quick Start” to reduce the backlog of cases. He placed Lynwood Savage, a longtime Democratic committee person, in charge of the two-person detail. That was in addition to the four-member Firearms Unit that previously handled all the work.

Washington said on Nov. 15 that he now has 10 employees working on the orders and that the backlog was cleared. But a run of the PFAD system four days before that showed 172 cases as outstanding. He replied that wasn’t a backlog — those cases were “under investigation.”

As for the cases, no longer “under investigation,” Washington said that includes about half of the 471 orders that have come into the Sheriff’s Office since April. In those, either the victim assured the deputies there had never been a weapon, or the alleged abused couldn’t be found and the case is referred to the Police Department.

The Sheriff’s Office, he said, labels those cases “cleared.”

‘Saving lives should be a priority’

As of mid-November, Carr’s failure to turn in a weapon was still listed on the state computers as outstanding. He is behind bars. His cousin, meanwhile, walks around with a bullet lodged in his neck.

Quinn, the former legislator, feared that the orders that the Sheriff’s Office is not jumping on give victims a “false sense of security.”

“Whatever brought someone to say, ‘I’m scared for my life,’ that’s a pretty immediate situation,” she said. “The 24 hours was to say, ‘Deal with it immediately.’ ”

Sheriff-elect Rochelle Bilal is to take office in January. She said she was surprised to hear how many guns might still be out there. Protection-from-abuse orders and weapons confiscations will be a top priority for her, Bilal said.

“Keeping not only victims safe but also the person accused of it, keep them from potentially using a gun,” she said. “PFAs are very important because you are talking about lives, and saving lives should be a priority.”

Staff writers Chris A. Williams, Dylan Purcell, and Chris Palmer contributed to this article.

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