Greensboro attorney Carolyn Woodruff has taken an urgent interest in domestic violence laws since the fatal shooting of Laurrissa Armstrong Aug. 29 by her estranged husband, who then killed himself.
Woodruff wrote a helpful article for our Ideas section Sunday offering 10 tips for victims going to court for a domestic violence protection order.
Armstrong, a Greensboro resident and teacher in High Point, was turned down twice — on July 29 and Aug. 7. Although she was clearly in danger, she apparently did not make a strong enough plea in court.
Woodruff also thinks there’s room to improve state domestic violence laws, and she’s working on some proposals.
One change for the worse is about to go into effect.
Armstrong’s husband, Bruce Armstrong, applied to the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office on July 26 for a pistol permit. It was granted Aug. 2.
Woodruff was not involved in the Armstrong case, but as part of her review she asked the Sheriff’s Office for a copy of the pistol permit application. She was denied on the grounds that the document was no longer a public record.
Not true. It is a public record — but only until Oct. 1.
As part of its rewrite of several gun laws this summer, the state legislature made records of pistol permits and concealed-carry licenses “confidential.”
Why? The argument went that criminals could look up who had these permits and make their home-burglary decisions accordingly.
The funny part was that some legislators said thieves target houses where they can steal guns while some said the cowardly crooks won’t break in where they know the residents are armed.
But there’s nothing funny about domestic violence.
Once Woodruff corrected the Sheriff’s Office about the effective date of the new law, she got Bruce Armstrong’s record. It was noted on the form granting his pistol permit: “Domestic Violence Order dated 7/29/13 denied. No disq.”
That meant, because Laurrissa Armstrong was unsuccessful in obtaining a temporary order against her husband, the Sheriff’s Office had no reason to turn him down.
Laurrissa Armstrong apparently didn’t know about the permit when she returned to court on Aug. 7. That information could have provided more evidence to support her case. Because it was a public record, she easily could have obtained a copy.
For any other woman in Laurrissa Armstrong’s position, that information is soon to be secret. She won’t be able to look up whether her husband, ex-husband, boyfriend or other domestic partner has or is seeking a permit to purchase a handgun — unless she presents a petition to the chief District Court judge and the judge agrees to issue a subpoena.
That’s a high hurdle for an average person to clear. What sort of petition should she submit? What are the legal points she needs to make? How quickly can this happen? What if the other party opposes her petition?
She’d better hire an attorney to make sure all this is done right ... if she can afford one.
That’s just one problem with hidden pistol permits. Suppose a man steps onto a school bus and starts shooting. Should the media, parents of the victims and the general public have a right to find out whether he had a permit issued by the local sheriff? The paperwork might show whether the sheriff missed a history of mental illness or domestic violence. The sheriff is a public official and his role in deciding who should or should not be granted permits to purchase handguns should be open to public examination.
Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes told me he would be forthcoming with information in such circumstances and would hold his staff accountable for any mistakes. Fine, but some sheriffs might not. Besides, the new law says these records “are confidential.” It makes no provision for their release to the public, even if the sheriff wants to disclose them.
Woodruff says these records should remain public and, if anything, there should be a disclosure requirement in domestic violence cases. A victim has the right to know if her estranged partner is trying to purchase firearms.
Woodruff makes a good point — so good that the original sponsor of the confidentiality provision, Republican state Sen. Stan Bingham of Davidson County, doesn’t disagree. He would be willing to modify the law to help victims of domestic violence, he told me Monday, although “my position to make that happen is debatable.” He meant that most of his fellow Republicans strongly supported removing these records from public access.
That’s frustrating because, sometimes, what a person doesn’t know can kill her.
Contact Doug Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org or 373-7039.