You Take the Law Into Your Own Hands When You Don't Trust the Law

You Take the Law Into Your Own Hands When You Don't Trust the Law
Illustration:Jim Cooke

Courtney Taylor Irby was just trying to save her own life. Earlier this month, she was granted a temporary restraining order against her estranged husband, Joseph Irby, who was about to be released on bond while facing a domestic violence charge for allegedly running her car off the road. Believing him to be dangerous, Taylor Irby went to his apartment in Florida, grabbed his assault rifle and handgun, and took them to the police station.

Police responded by arresting her for theft, and Taylor Irby spent nearly a week in jail. (Her husband, against whom she filed for divorce in January, spent a mere 24 hours in jail for the allegation of running her car off the road.) Now, she faces two charges of grand theft of a firearm and one charge of armed burglary, the latter of which stems from the fact that she left her husband’s apartment carrying his guns, reports the Washington Post.

It isn’t just that Taylor Irby did what she did because she feared for her life. She took the law into her own hands because she, quite rightly, feared that the law wouldn’t keep her safe. Women are five times more likely to be killed in domestic violence situations when there is a gun present, according to one study. It’s for good reason then that federal law, and a patchwork of state laws, attempt to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers. There are yawning loopholes, though, that leave women like Taylor Irby at risk. The equation becomes: trust police to protect you or do what you can to protect yourself.

In a way, Taylor Irby did both. She took the law into her own hands by taking her husband’s guns, and then she handed them over to the law. The law responded by throwing her behind bars.

Federal law prohibits people convicted of certain domestic violence crimes as well as those subject to certain protective orders—and who meet specific relationship or cohabiting criteria—from buying or possessing guns. But as Florida state Representative Anna Eskamani, a Democrat from Orlando, wrote in a letter urging Polk County State Attorney Brian Haas to not press charges against Taylor Irby, even when the letter of the law is meant to disarm abusers, “local law enforcement and prosecutors do not have the tools they need in Florida to enforce those restrictions.” According to the Post, local police aren’t granted “the authority to remove weapons that a person owned before conviction.” In Irby’s case, the terms of his release required that he not possess any weapons, but Taylor Irby doubted that he would hand over his guns.

Eskamani attempted to close some of these legal loopholes in the last legislative session with a bill, SB1206/HB941, that “would have required, among other things, that people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence offenses surrender all firearms and ammunition.” The proposal never even got a hearing. Technically, Florida’s “red-flag law” allows judges and law enforcement to take weapons from “anyone deemed a danger to themselves or others,” says the Post, but it’s still a matter of enforcement.

“An examination of Rhode Island’s relinquishment policy by Everytown for Gun Safety found that judges ordered defendants to surrender their guns in only 5 percent of qualifying domestic violence cases between 2012 and 2014,” the Trace, a gun policy publication, reported in 2015. “Even when a judge knew a defendant had access to a firearm or threatened to use a firearm, a gun surrender order was issued in only 13 percent of cases.”

Taylor Irby may or may not have known that the statistics weren’t on her side, but she knew something that compelled her to surrender those guns that day. That’s the thing: People take the law into their own hands when they don’t trust the law. And why trust the law when police are left without the resources to enforce life-saving measures, and when legislators don’t prioritize vital, loophole-closing legislation? “She was literally asking for help,” said Eskamani in an interview with the Post. “We know with so many survivors of domestic violence that asking for help is the biggest challenge. We just demonstrated that if you ask for help, you might be arrested.” Taylor Irby was asking for help, but she was also helping herself. She didn’t believe that anyone else would.

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