This originally was published in the Harrisburg Patriot-News on September 9, 2015.
It was a tragedy that shocks the conscience and rattles a community's sense of security and serenity.
Shortly before noon on Labor Day, just outside a popular Mount Gretna ice cream parlor, Patrick Derr, 47, of Richland, fatally shot his former girlfriend, Stacey L. Pennington, 46, of South Lebanon, before turning the gun on himself. The murder and attempted suicide occurred two days before Derr was to appear in court to be sentenced on assault and harassment charges.
According to several news reports, Pennington had obtained a protection-from-abuse order against her former partner. The circumstances of Pennington's murder have ignited public debate centered on two main questions:
• Do PFAs protect domestic violence victims?
• Would more restrictive gun laws have helped?
The answers are: yes and yes.
Let's begin with PFAs.
A protection from abuse order is a legal paper, signed by a judge, which commands the abuser to stop abusing the victim or face serious legal consequences. It provides civil legal protection from domestic violence to both men and women. A judge may grant several forms of PFAs, including an emergency order, a temporary order and a final order, which may last up to three years and may be extended under certain circumstances.
The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, where I serve as executive director, has produced a video on how to obtain a PFA. It's available to the public here:
The video features Kathy A. Morrow, president judge of Perry-Juniata Court of Common Pleas, who said:
"Petitions for protection from abuse are an extremely valuable tool, and a very effective tool, in protecting victims of abuse. Judges and law enforcement take PFAs extremely seriously and will do their best to protect you at all times.''
Pennsylvania's PFA law is among the toughest in the nation. Judges can order the abuser removed from the home and to stop harassing or stalking the victim and relatives. They may order temporary custody or visitation rights to minor children. They may order the abuser to provide financial support and to surrender firearms and other weapons and ammunition to the police.
No law is perfect, and there is no foolproof guarantee that a PFA will be 100 percent effective against an abuser bent on violence. Nevertheless, statistics would seem to indicate that PFAs are effective. More than 36,000 requests for PFAs were filed in the commonwealth last year, when 141 Pennsylvanians died in domestic homicides.
If there is a misconception about the effectiveness of PFAs, it's because we usually hear about only those that fail. It's not a criticism of the news media, which are simply doing their job; it's simply human nature.
While PFAs are effective in protecting domestic violence victims, they are not, and should not be, the only tool that's utilized. There are many services and programs available to help domestic violence victims, from legal counseling to relocation assistance to constructing a safety plan. These services are available 24/7 through PCADV's 60 community-based programs serving all 67 counties. For more information on the nearest center, please visit www.pcadv.org.
We also must not forget that each of us must do our part to change the culture of our communities. We must make sure that each person who needs help is supported, so that violence is viewed as an unacceptable response to a personal or group conflict.
As the Mount Gretna tragedy illustrates, guns are more often than not at the center of domestic violence homicides. More lives would be saved if firearms could be removed from the equation. Each year, guns account for more than half of domestic violence homicides in the commonwealth. In York County alone, there have been four murder-suicides this year, all with firearms.
Our organization is working to update Pennsylvania's PFA laws to reduce firearm-related domestic homicides. We are seeking legislation that would bar all domestic abusers subject to active final PFAs from possessing a gun, and requiring them to turn in their guns to law enforcement or to a licensed firearms dealer. The proposal would also make sure PFA defendants can't hand their guns over to a friend or family member, which would make it too easy for the abuser to reclaim guns and commit violence. Our groups also is working to strengthen existing gun surrender policy for convicted abusers. This legislation would require abusers to turn in their weapons within 24 hours, instead of the 60 days currently allowed. These proposed changes to the PFA and Uniform Firearms acts would create a safer, more efficient and effective way to keep more guns out of the hands of more abusers.
On behalf of PCADV staff in Harrisburg, and at our 60 community-based programs, we extend our deepest condolences to the family of Stacey L. Pennington. And we want to let all domestic violence victims know that help is available round the clock at 800-799-7233.
Peg J. Dierkers is executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. For more information, please visit www.pcadv.org.
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