Crime & Courts

Before Kansas mass shooting, a trail of domestic violence

A shattered door marks the front entrance of Excel Industries in Hesston where Cedric Ford, an Excel employee, allegedly entered the factory, killed three people and wounded 14 others before being killed by police.
A shattered door marks the front entrance of Excel Industries in Hesston where Cedric Ford, an Excel employee, allegedly entered the factory, killed three people and wounded 14 others before being killed by police. File photo

Before a gunman opened fire last month in Kansas, killing three people and injuring 14, he established a pattern of domestic abuse that, experts say, can frequently be a precursor to deadly violence.

U.S. Justice Department statistics show that more than 50 percent of women who are killed with guns are killed by intimate partners or family members. Kansas, like many states, relies heavily on federal funding to support services to cope with domestic violence. But advocates in the state say that despite an increase in federal grant money last year, Kansas still has unmet needs.

And while federal law prohibits the possession of guns by domestic abusers, Kansas lacks a state law that empowers local courts and law enforcement agencies to enforce it.

Women are killed with guns at higher rates by abusive partners in states with weaker gun protections in domestic violence cases, according to FBI data.

The gunman, 38-year-old Cedric Ford, shot and killed three of his co-workers in Hesston on Feb. 25. Ford, a convicted felon, was shot and killed by police.

He had been served earlier by Hesston police with a court-issued restraining order sought by an unidentified woman.

Another woman who had lived with Ford now faces federal charges of transferring firearms to a convicted felon after, police say, she gave him the two guns he used in the shooting.

There is evidence in court documents, though, that the woman, Sarah Hopkins, was herself afraid of Ford. She had asked police last summer to help her retrieve the firearms when she moved out of a home she shared with Ford.

According to court documents, Sarah Hopkins then pawned the two guns but she allegedly gave them back to Ford when he threatened her.

Joyce Grover, executive director of the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, said guns in the home of a domestic abuser can lead to deadly outcomes.

“What we know about domestic abusers is that they can be very dangerous,” she said in an interview.

Kansas allocated $4 million in state general funds in 2015 for support services to victims of domestic violence. The amount was bolstered by $19 million in federal grants from the Justice Department’s Office for Victims of Crime, and a $1 million grant from the Family Violence Prevention & Services Program of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Grover said that the additional federal funds — up from about $5.8 million in 2014 — help support legal services, child care, housing and food for domestic violence survivors.

Shoestring budget

However, Grover said, the state’s programs have always operated on a shoestring budget. “The need for services has never been fully funded,” she said.

A snapshot of Kansas taken last September by the National Network to End Domestic Violence found that many programs around the state reported a critical shortage of funds and staff to assist victims.

The shootings by Cedric Ford could spur a renewed conversation in Kansas and other states about gun law changes aimed at keeping the weapons out of the hands of domestic abusers. At least one state lawmaker has filed a bill to give courts and law enforcement that authority.

According to an analysis of FBI data by the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety, 38 percent of mass shootings from 2009 to 2015 involved prohibited possessors — someone like Ford whose criminal record would have barred him from having guns.

Luke Entelis, counsel for Everytown for Gun Safety, said the overwhelming caseload of federal prosecutors often places the responsibility of enforcing federal laws in the hands of local officials who may lack that authority.

“States need to put in their own prohibitions,” Entelis said. “That empowers state and local law enforcement authority to act with full authority of state law behind them.”

Ford had a tumultuous past.

In addition to convictions for burglary and theft in Florida, he also had been convicted of domestic violence and disorderly conduct in Kansas.

In a protective order filed Feb. 5 in Sedgwick County, Ford’s unidentified former girlfriend said a verbal dispute between them became physical. “He placed me in a chokehold from behind,” she wrote, adding that she couldn’t breathe. “He then got me to the ground while choking me — finally releasing me.”

That kind of violent behavior is an indication of lethality, Grover said.

“Someone can die in a matter of seconds,” she said of the alleged choking. “To me, that is attempted murder.”

Kansas laws lacking

According to Everytown for Gun Safety, Kansas is not among the states that prohibit people convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors or subject to domestic violence restraining orders from having guns.

Kansas also is not among a group of states that require such people to turn in their firearms, according to the group.

“More than half of states have taken concrete measures to separate firearms from domestic abusers,” Entelis said.

According to another analysis of FBI data by Everytown for Gun Safety, a woman is about eight times more likely to be shot and killed by an abusive partner in Kansas as she is in Illinois, and twice as likely as in Minnesota. Both of those states have more stringent laws restricting domestic abusers’ access to guns.

Catherine Mortensen, a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association in Fairfax, Va., agreed that convicted domestic abusers should not have guns. She did not comment, however, on efforts by some states to require those under restraining orders to turn in their guns.

“The NRA does not want convicted domestic abusers and violent felons to have access to firearms, period,” she said in a statement. “Under federal law, these individuals are already prohibited from possessing firearms.”

The states that have enacted tougher requirements include Connecticut and New York, but also more rural and conservative Tennessee and Iowa.

“This is not a blue-state policy by any means,” Entelis said.

Legislation currently in a Kansas House of Representatives committee would empower state and local courts and law enforcement to remove guns in domestic abuse cases.

“I have no idea what will change after last weekend,” said Rep. Barbara Bollier, a Republican and retired physician from Mission Hills who introduced the bill. “By God, I would hope something would.”

Bollier knows the bill could be a tough sell in Kansas, which in the past year has relaxed its gun laws to allow people to carry concealed weapons without permits or training.

“At least let it be heard,” Bollier said. “Our state owes it to the people.”