Boyfriends Can Kill, Too

Posted December 22, 2017 10:42 p.m. EST

After their divorce in 2015, Cheryl and Josh Mascareñas committed themselves to co-parenting, vowing that no matter what happened in their romantic lives, their three kids would be healthy, happy and loved. Ian, their fourth-grader, blossomed into a voracious reader and began taking guitar lessons with Dad. Olivia, nearly 7, loved helping her mom cook the family meals, especially breakfast. Elijah, the kindergarten class clown, told giddy jokes. “What does a nosy pepper do?” went his latest favorite. “It gets jalapeño your business!”

Last year, Cheryl Mascareñas, who was 36, began dating George Daniel Wechsler. A former corrections officer, Wechsler lived not far from the family’s home in Four Hills, a suburb of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The couple dated only briefly before Mascareñas broke things off, turning down Wechsler’s request to buy her family Christmas gifts.

On the evening of Dec. 5, 2016, Mascareñas and the kids returned home to find Wechsler waiting for them with a gun. He shot all four, mother and children. Mascareñas, severely wounded but alive, carried one of her children into the street, handing him to someone rushing to help, before returning for another. Ian, Olivia and Elijah were later pronounced dead. As the police and ambulances arrived, Wechsler called his brother to confess and then turned the gun on himself.

As Cheryl and Josh Mascareñas prepared to bury their children, law enforcement and court records told yet another horrifying story: Wechsler had been convicted of stalking at least one previous girlfriend and arrested for battery against a household member. In 2002, one of the women reportedly called the police after she found him parked outside her workplace, carrying a gun, binoculars and a video camera. He was arrested and pleaded guilty to misdemeanor stalking and assault. Twelve years later, the second woman also reported to the police that she feared for her life because of his actions and threats, but the prosecutor dismissed those charges. And just weeks before Wechsler killed the Mascareñas children, police officers visited him at his house after a call from a friend worried that he was suicidal.

Yet, though Wechsler was a clear threat to himself and others, there was no legal way to prevent him from owning or buying weapons. The police knew he had easy access to a firearm from their earlier visit to him. But he was not married to the women he battered, nor did he have children with them. He was therefore exempt from federal prohibitions meant to protect the abused. He slipped through what is known as the “boyfriend loophole.”

In 1996, the U.S. Senate agreed almost unanimously that Americans who commit violence against their own families should lose their Second Amendment rights forever. The Lautenberg Amendment was a restriction that, at the time, few objected to. Only two legislators voted against it. But it also covered only batterers who lived with their spouses or had children with them. As the Mascareñas murders show, this law is in desperate need of an update.

Nearly half the 10,018 women murdered in the United States from 2003 to 2014 were killed by their current or former romantic partners, according to figures released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last summer. The latest FBI data suggests that a boyfriend is nearly as likely as a husband to be a perpetrator.

Twenty-two states and Washington, D.C., have laws that go beyond the federal limits for restraining orders. Looking at 34 years of data through 2013, researchers at Michigan State University found that these states had rates of partner homicide committed with firearms that were 14 percent lower than states without the stricter laws. Four of the 22 states have gone so far as to prohibit gun possession by anyone convicted of a violent misdemeanor regardless of the victim’s relationship to the offender. This led to a 23 percent drop in intimate partner homicides, according to the study.

Congress now has a bill before it that would close some of the loopholes in the Lautenberg Amendment. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., has introduced it in each of the past three legislative sessions, most recently with her House colleague Debbie Dingell, D-Mich. Beyond including current and former dating partners, the proposed changes would also strengthen laws to keep guns away from those convicted of stalking. According to Justice Department statistics, 76 percent of women killed by their partners had been stalked before their deaths.

This year, the bill received little Republican support, but that wasn’t always the case. In 2015, Klobuchar was able to recruit several Republicans, including former Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, to co-sponsor it. Members of law enforcement and the judiciary testified in favor of expanding the law to include dating partners. Many law enforcement officers remain on board, but today’s Republican politicians have shifted gears, adopting the increasingly absolutist view of the Second Amendment proffered by the gun lobby, which, in the Trump era, has itself become more ambitious.

The Second Amendment was never intended to keep guns in the hands of convicted criminals, any more than the First Amendment’s freedom of association was meant to keep criminals out of jail. It’s dangerous for politicians who clearly know better to decide that it’s easy to reject all restrictions on guns — claiming, against all evidence, that they don’t prevent crime — rather than do the responsible work of writing laws to protect families like the Mascareñases. None of these new restrictions would keep guns away from people who want weapons for self-defense, hunting or collecting, unless they attack their loved ones.

In supporting Klobuchar’s reforms, Congress would also be acting to protect the police. “I am the sheriff of Racine County, Wisconsin, and have been a law enforcement officer for 19 years. I am a conservative Republican,” Christopher Schmaling told lawmakers at a July 2014 Senate hearing. “I can tell you firsthand that domestic violence is horrific, whether or not the abuser and victim are married.”

Schmaling asked Congress to protect not only the victims of family violence, but also the cops who must intervene. “When we send our police into danger to respond to domestic violence calls, we send the same folks regardless of the couple’s marital status. Dangerous boyfriends can be just as scary as dangerous husbands; they hit just as hard and they fire their guns with the same deadly force.”

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