- Associated Press - Saturday, February 6, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina lawmakers passed a law last year banning some people convicted of domestic violence from owning guns.

But the state’s antiquated court records system could prevent advocates from tracking how it is working.

Last year, Democrats and Republicans came together to pass the law giving a lifetime gun ban for the worst abusers and an automatic three- or 10-year ban in other serious cases.

But in the least serious third-degree domestic violence cases, whether someone convicted of the crime can keep or buy guns is left up to the judge. Advocates fighting domestic violence want to know how often a judge rules to take away guns, but is struggling to collect data, said Sara Barber, executive director of the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

“We can’t tell how well the law is working if we can’t tell how judges are using their discretion,” Barber said.

A domestic violence task force created by Gov. Nikki Haley determined that 62 percent of domestic violence cases in South Carolina end with a not guilty verdict. But the database is so disjointed, that it is impossible to know if the defendants in those cases were found not guilty, accepted a plea bargain to a lesser charge or the charges were dropped. It is also difficult to sort the data by a criminal charge without a defendant’s name.

“When the governor signs a bill it isn’t over,” Barber said. “A lot of times implementation is the tougher part.”

Solicitor Duffie Stone, who prosecutes criminal cases for six Lowcountry counties, said the new law provides prosecutors with another tool that can solve the reporting problems - all cases can be tried in General Sessions court, the highest trial level court with a much better system to track records, instead of by a lower-level magistrate.

“It also sends a message to the offender to be tried in the same court as a murderer or rapist, instead of where someone went 55 (mph) in a 35,” Stone said.

Advocates said overall the 2015 law is a big step in a state that has long ignored a dangerous problem. FBI data obtained by The Associated Press shows 230 people have died in domestic violence shootings in South Carolina from 2006 to 2015. Only five other states reported more deaths, and four of them have twice the population of South Carolina.

The law did more than ban guns. It also increased penalties for repeat domestic violence offenders based on the severity of the attack, the number of prior offenses and other factors, like whether the victim was strangled, is pregnant or was abused with children nearby. It replaces an old system that based punishment mostly on the number of offenses.

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