To a police officer, a gun is basic equipment, an essential tool of a cop's trade - like a hammer to a carpenter.
But nationwide, police with a criminal history of domestic violence are being stripped of their weapons, in compliance with a Sept. 30 amendment to the Gun Control Act of 1968. In a move reflecting society's growing intolerance for domestic violence, the revised law bans gun ownership or possession by anyone convicted of a misdemeanor domestic-violence offense. That includes law-enforcement agents, government employees, and military personnel.
Nationally, some 19,000 law-enforcement entities are affected by the law - including the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration. As of last week, the Pentagon was waiting for advice from the Justice Department on how to apply the law in the military.
While few would argue for a batterer's right to bear arms, law-enforcement officials across the country are reeling from the implications. The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) - charged with enforcing the law - emphasized in a Nov. 26 open letter to law-enforcement chiefs, "If the person was convicted of the crime at any time, he or she may not lawfully possess firearms or ammunition after Sept. 30, 1996." Departments must now carefully review the history of every officer they employ.
Already in Denver, one patrol officer and one detective with prior domestic violence convictions have been reassigned to desk jobs; and in Los Angeles, five sheriff's deputies have been disarmed.
But some law-enforcement officials nationwide consider the law unconstitutional for its retroactive application and are holding off on applying it. Police Chief Rubin Archuleta in Pueblo, Colo., for one, has refused to screen officers. "I'm going to wait and see what happens in court," he says.
Meanwhile, a Denver police union is considering legal action to block the federal law. "The concern we have is that it's going back to 15, 20 years ago," says Denver Police Detective John Wyckoff. "We have to say to officers, 'When we hired you it was okay, but now you can't carry a gun.'"
But US Attorney Henry Salono disagrees. "This is not punishment for a prior offense. This is a current standard set for who should be able to carry a firearm."
In Congress, future debate will center on congressional intent regarding the bill's retroactivity. After sailing through the Senate under the sponsorship of Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, the bill floundered in the House. Late in the game, Rep. Bob Barr, a Republican from Georgia, then added a provision including police and military personnel, and the bill passed as part of the 1997 Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act.
But the controversy began when the ATF announced the law would affect anyone with a record of misdemeanor domestic violence. By definition, this refers to "the use or attempted use of physical force, or the threatened use of a deadly weapon" against one's spouse, child, parent or other intimate partner.
Representative Barr now says he hoped the law would apply "prospectively, rather than retroactively." Congress is expected to take up the issue in January.
Laine Gibbs, director of the Colorado Coalition Against Domestic Violence, sees prior conduct as a critical element in the domestic-abuser profile. "I think the intent of the law was for it to be retroactive. For me, this says, 'We understand the dynamic of domestic violence' - which is characterized by repeat offenses."
Getting a statewide fix on the number of officers involved in domestic-abuse cases is difficult. The offenses are often misdemeanors and according to anti-domestic abuse advocates, many district attorneys who prosecute such cases often do not list the offender's occupation in court papers.
If police officers are being held to a higher standard than other citizens, that's the way it should be, according to Barbara Paradiso, executive director of Boulder County Safehouse, a nonprofit shelter and counseling center in Colorado for abused women.
"A police officer is supposed to be the embodiment of a law-abiding citizen. If he's a batterer, he shouldn't be allowed to carry a gun, or respond to an incident of domestic violence.
At some police departments, however, officers involved in domestic abuse risk losing not only their firearms but their jobs. "They can't get much more than a traffic ticket and still be working here," says Lynn Kimbrough, a spokeswoman for the Lakewood Police Department, west of Denver.
In fact, if the law stands, officers with domestic-abuse convictions may soon be forced into a new line of work, says Ms. Kimbrough. "Even off-duty, officers are expected to be able to respond to issues of public safety at any time. If we had an officer who could not carry a gun, it would be very difficult," she says.