Harris County commissioners voted at an Oct. 29 meeting on a motion to move forward with plans to expand a pilot program intended to reduce domestic violence incidents involving firearms.

The program—known as "Safe Surrender"—calls on individuals charged with a domestic violence incidents or who have had a protective order filed against them to temporarily surrender their firearms to the Harris County Sheriff's office or to a licensed dealer until the case is resolved. The program, which was being run by Harris County's 280th District Court, is slated to be expanded to all of the county's 22 felony district courts.

Addressing the court, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said Texas law has encouraged people under a protective order to temporarily surrender their guns for the past 25 years. However, he said Harris County formerly did not have any program or infrastructure in place to oversee those efforts.

Gonzalez said he supported the program's expansion, noting that around 40% of homicides in Harris County have a domestic violence nexus.

"Many people killed by intimate partners are killed within 90 days of violence, so it is very important we act quickly," he said.

A total of 25 weapons were voluntarily surrendered over the course of the pilot program, which was launched earlier this year, Gonzalez said. As a pilot, the program was funded entirely from the existing sheriff's office budget, he said. The court directed the sheriff's office to work with Institute of Forensic Science and the Criminal District Courts on an expansion plan and to come back with an estimated cost at the Nov. 12 meeting.

"We think it's sound public policy, being respectful of Second Amendment rights but also recognizing the volatility of many situations," Gonzalez said. "It’s a win-win for everybody. If we can prevent one domestic violence death, that’s a success."

Other initiatives

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo provided updates on several other initiatives the county is looking into to reduce gun violence, including a program being run by the Precinct 1 Constable's office to distribute gun locks at community service events and an effort to speed up the process by which the District Clerk provides reports to the Texas Department of Public Safety on convictions that disqualify individuals from purchasing firearms.

"One way to keep firearms out of the wrong hands is to make sure that licensed dealers know who they are selling to," Hidalgo said. "Licensed firearms dealers have no way of knowing if they have been convicted of crimes if the database hasn’t been updated."

As a part of a multi-pronged effort to reduce gun violence in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott signed Executive Order GA-07 in September. As part of that order, starting Jan. 1, all grants awarded to Texas counties will hinge in part of the county meeting certain requirements for how fast convictions are reported to DPS.

A total of 90% of convictions must be reported within seven business days, an increase from the current requirement that convictions be reported within 30 business days, Harris County District Clerk Marylin Burgess said. By Jan. 1, 2021, the requirements rise again to within five business days, she said.

Harris County has typically followed a self-imposed turnaround of 10 business days, Burgess said. However, as of Oct. 25, she said the county has reached a point where it is capable of turning convictions around in five days.

Roughly 80,000 adult convictions and 60,000 juvenile cases are analyzed per year, Burgess said. She said the added pressure on her staff to meet the new deadline will likely necessitate more help, including one person who would be dedicated to juvenile cases, which she said tend to be more complicated. She said she would come back to commissioners at a later date with a formal request, which she said would likely be made before the start of the next budget cycle in March.

Hidalgo said other types of gun control efforts—including stronger background checks and "red flag" laws, which allow police to temporarily confiscate firearms from individuals determined to be a danger to themselves or others—would have to be passed at a higher level, whether as a state law or federal law.

Several public speakers addressed the court, but none expressed opposition to the expansion of the Safe Surrender program, which was the only gun violence initiative commissioners voted on at the meeting. Several speakers spoke against the idea of expanding background checks and against gun control laws more broadly.

In a statement, Hidalgo lauded the county's efforts and criticized state and federal lawmakers for failing to pass gun control measures.

"Here in Harris County, we won't sit idly by and do nothing as this epidemic continues to steal lives all around us," she said. "We know county government can be an agent for positive change, working around barriers and unfunded mandates to keep our communities safe. The measures we are announcing today are real, common-sense actions that will save lives and protect some of our most vulnerable residents, including victims of domestic violence and children."