The unusual arrest of an alleged domestic violence victim who brought her husband’s guns to the police for safekeeping has reignited a debate on how to get guns out of the hands of people who aren’t legally allowed to own them.
Courtney Taylor Irby, who goes by Taylor, was arrested for armed burglary on June 15 after she took her estranged husband’s firearms to the Lakeland Police Department in Florida. At the time, her husband was in jail on a felony domestic battery charge, and she had an emergency protective order against him. While leaving a court hearing about their pending divorce, he’d allegedly rammed into the back of her vehicle multiple times and drove her off the road.
Joseph Irby, 35, was set to be released on bond, with a court order not to own, buy or carry firearms. Taylor told police she did not believe Joseph would turn over his guns, and so she took matters into her own hands, depositing the guns at the police station ― an act she believed might save her life.
For this, she was arrested and spent five nights in jail before being released on bond.
Taylor, a 32-year-old mother of two who runs a small fashion accessory company, faces up to life imprisonment if convicted on the burglary charge. Friends are raising money for her defense. Jacob Orr, an assistant state attorney for the 10th Judicial Circuit, told HuffPost that prosecutors have not yet decided if they will pursue the case against her.
The Lakeland Police Department did not respond to a request for comment. It’s not clear whether Joseph Irby’s guns, which he is not legally allowed to possess, have been returned to him.
Taylor Irby’s arrest exposes gaps in the system designed to protect domestic abuse victims, who experts say are particularly vulnerable to gun violence. An estimated four women a day are killed by intimate partners. Indeed, more women in the U.S. are killed by their intimate partners — boyfriends, husbands and exes — than by any other type of perpetrator. The most common weapon used is a gun.
“She knew that this just poked the bear, and he would be coming after her,” Taylor’s sister Haley Burke told a local news outlet. “She just knew that if the police had the guns, she would be safe for just a little while longer.”
The fatal link between domestic violence and firearms is reflected in federal law, which bars convicted abusers and those subject to some types of protective orders from owning or buying firearms. But domestic abuse is primarily prosecuted at a state level, so in practice, it is up to individual states to set their own policies.
According to Everytown for Gun Safety, only 17 states and Washington, D.C., require abusers convicted of domestic violence to turn in their firearms once they are prohibited from having them. Just nine states require individuals subject to temporary protective orders, like Joseph Irby, to surrender their guns. Florida is not one of them.
Joseph was still technically barred from owning guns under the conditions of his pretrial release. But in Florida, there is no automatic enforcement mechanism to ensure that someone in his position would get rid of the guns already in his possession.
Phil Silverstein, director of pretrial services for Florida’s 10th Judicial Circuit, said that defendants who are barred from owning firearms are explicitly told they cannot remain armed, and are warned they will be sent back to jail if they are caught with guns.
“Sometimes, they hand them over to family. Sometimes, they surrender to the sheriff’s department,” he said. “But there’s no guarantee that’s always going to happen.”
In the last few years, a handful of states have passed laws to close the so-called “relinquishment gap” and ensure that domestic abusers who are not legally allowed to own guns actually give them up.
States with best practices require abusers to list their firearms for the court, surrender them to an approved party ― often a licensed gun dealer or law enforcement ― within 24 to 48 hours, and provide a receipt of the transfer to a judge, explained William Rosen, managing director of state policy and government affairs at Everytown for Gun Safety.
“If at any point it becomes apparent that person did not comply with the order of relinquishment and they are still in possession of guns, courts can issue a warrant so that law enforcement can go in and retrieve them,” he said.
Research has found that states that require abusers to turn over their guns have fewer gun-related domestic violence homicides.
For Kim Gandy, president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, it’s just common sense.
“What is the point of making it against the law for a domestic abuser to have guns, but then not actually taking the guns away?” she said. “It is baffling that so many police and judges resist taking the logical step of removing those unlawful guns. They are playing with people’s lives.”
Earlier this year, Florida state Rep. Anna Eskamani (D) introduced a bill that would have required some domestic abusers to surrender their firearms, and would have empowered law enforcement to remove guns from those who did not voluntarily turn them over. The legislation died before it received a single hearing, but Eskamani told HuffPost she plans to introduce it again next session.
“Because Florida has such lax gun laws, it is hard to even know how many firearms a person owns,” Eskamani said. “There is not a lot of teeth to ensure that guns are removed from the home.”
On Monday, she sent a letter to Brian Haas, the state attorney for Florida’s 10th Judicial Circuit, calling for Taylor Irby’s charges to be dropped.
“Prosecuting Ms. Irby sets a scary precedent that if someone seeks help to escape abuse, they will be punished for it,” she wrote on Twitter. “We refuse to accept that standard.”
Eskamani said the decision to arrest Taylor reflects law enforcement’s lack of education on domestic abuse, and a lack of tools available to them.
“Without a doubt this was a complete mishandling of domestic violence and what to do when you’re working with a survivor,” she said. “If we don’t do something, more people will die.”
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.