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TN gun de-possession laws enable offenders to continue abuse

FOX 17 News file photo

A loophole in Tennessee law is allowing violent criminals to keep firearms.

Of course, that is not how the law is supposed to work, but a provision allowing for "third-party de-possession" makes it possible for offenders to trick the system and never actually give up their weapons.

Tennessee law says felons or other violent offenders have three options for giving up their firearms:

1. Bringing them to law enforcement

2. Taking them to a dealer to confiscate

3. "Third-party" de-possession -- like giving them to a family member or friend.

However, the state has no way to verify the handoff to a family member or friend actually happens, and sometimes those third parties are not permitted to have a gun either.

"We have been really relying on the honor system with these violent offenders that they are handing over their weapons to a third party," said Becky Bullard who works for the Department of Family Safety which works to improve victim safety and offender accountability. "Essentially what it says is we trust a domestic violence offender, someone who's been convicted or has an order of protection against them to hand over their weapon to a third party."

That honor system leaves a great deal to be desired in terms of effectiveness. In the case of Sparkle Johnson who was abused for five years and nearly killed by her children's father, a gun was merely another means for the abuser to exercise control.

"You name it beat, raped, pistol whooped, played Russian roulette for my life," Johnson said. "I feel like this is probably what death feels like. I remember my vision getting blurry, and I just prayed God, don't let my kids find me dead."

Fortunately, Johnson's children did not. She had her abuser arrested after police visited the home for the 14th time, and she never mentioned his gun until the last call. She now works tirelessly to advocate for victims.

"If God went through all this trouble to create little ole me, unique, wonderfully and different and special and perfect in his image, why would I let somebody trample over that," Johnson says of her motivation to speak out and prosecute her abuser.

The Office of Family Safety is working with other law enforcement agency to pinpoint solutions to close the loophole. Creating a gun de-possession task force designed specifically to deal with violent offenders is one option. Federal grants may be able to help fund such a program.

Women who have been previously threatened or assaulted with a firearm or other weapon are 20 times more likely than other women to be murdered by their abusers, and of the women killed with a firearm, 63 percent were murdered by their intimate partners.

The Jean Crowe Advocacy Center at 100 James Robertson Parkway is a critical resource for victims of domestic violence. They keep everything confidential, and they can help victims plan for their safety or escape from an abuser. Their assistance to domestic and sexual violence victims continues throughout the criminal and civil court process.

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