COLUMBIA — For years, domestic violence victims advocates have insisted that society asks the wrong question about abusive relationships.
Rather than talk about why a woman stays in an abusive relationship, people need to ask a man why he hits a woman.
Now, legislation is working its way through the S.C. General Assembly that would put more responsibility on people who are charged with criminal domestic violence.
A bill, sponsored by state Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg, would increase jail time for first-time offenders, would require mandatory counseling and would force abusers to turn over their guns to police. The bill was discussed Thursday morning before a House judiciary subcommittee, and the subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. David Weeks, D-Sumter, said he plans to put the bill back on an agenda next week.
Advocates want to turn around South Carolina’s abysmal record with domestic violence.
Last year, the state ranked first in the nation in the number of women killed by men, according to an annual study produced by the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C. It was the 10th time South Carolina had been ranked in the top 10 in the past 10 years and the state’s third time being ranked first.
The Legislature also has a embarrassing history when it comes to dealing with domestic violence bills.
In 2005, a state representative attracted national attention when he told a reporter that domestic violence victims get what they deserve. During that uproar, a House panel had passed a bill that made cockfighting a felony while killing one that would have increased penalties for domestic violence.
The bill’s supporters acknowledged the bill will have a tough road through the Legislature before it becomes law. That difficulty was addressed Thursday by Jeff Moore, executive director of the S.C. Sheriff’s Association, when he spoke about the provision to take guns away from people when a protective order is taken against them.
“We know how much we love our guns in this state,” Moore said. “We support this provision, but it’s going to be a fight getting it in.”
The provision would bar gun possession and ownership among those convicted of domestic violence as well as those who have emergency protective orders filed against them by a judge. The provision mirrors federal law.
Moore said law enforcement officers would not search the home of every person who would be prohibited from having a gun. But officers would seize weapons when the opportunities presented themselves.
As for the penalty provision, the bill would increase the maximum sentence to 180 days in jail from 30 days.
Becky Callaham, a board member for the S.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, began her presentation to lawmakers by telling true stories of S.C. women who were killed or severely injured by men who already had been convicted of domestic violence or who had protective orders against them.
The goal of the bill is to hold those men accountable and to try to prevent them from repeatedly abusing a woman, which is why advocates want judges to order offenders to have counseling.
“The problem we need to address in South Carolina is how do we hold the abuser accountable early on,” Callaham said.
A mandatory 26-week intervention program would not “fix or cure” everyone, but it would provide abusers a chance to change their behavior, she said.
“It’s not a panacea,” Callaham said. “It’s not a cure-all. But for those 26 weeks, you’ve got someone watching them.”
While the domestic violence bill did not make it out of the subcommittee on Thursday, another bill addressing abusive behavior did.
A bill sponsored by S.C. Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, would allow judges to include pets in emergency protective orders. It is the second time Cobb-Hunter has pushed the bill.
Before, “there was a lot of talk from people who thought it was a joke and found humor in it,” she said.
But the bill is not a joke, she said. The Humane Society of the United States supports the bill, and a lobbyist from the Defense Lawyers Association said his organization did not oppose the bill.
It is well documented that abusers use family pets to manipulate spouses and children, she said.
“There’s an attachment to pets and a love for pets that an abuser understands,” Cobb-Hunter said.