Federal prosecutors cite gun laws as weapon against domestic violence

ablythe@newsobserver.comMarch 2, 2013 

— William Ira Harris sat in a federal courtroom several days ago, his head buried in his hands.

The 55-year-old Henderson resident faces charges that he had 59 rounds of ammunition while under a state court order not to “harass, stalk or threaten” his ex-wife or her child.

Prosecutors in federal and state court point to his case as one that underscores how federal gun laws can be used as weapons against domestic violence when state laws fail to offer immediate protection.

Harris’ ex-wife, Frances Gulley Harris, told a Wake County judge that her former spouse threatened twice on Jan. 1 to kill her, words uttered in front of her child, according to the protection order filed in Wake County District Court.

Under the order, dated Feb. 12, Harris had 10 days to surrender any firearms, and he was placed under the domestic violence protective order for one year.

The next day, according to federal court records, Raleigh police were called to the Glenwood Plaza office building on Glenwood Avenue inside Raleigh’s beltline. Harris’ ex-wife reported he was in the building in violation of the state court order. Raleigh police arrested Harris and then searched his car in the parking lot.

Investigators said they found 58 rounds of .17-caliber Hornady Magnum Rimfire ammunition, nine of which were in a rifle magazine, and a .243-caliber Winchester rifle bullet with the name of Harris’ ex-spouse written on it. No guns were found in the car.

On Feb. 16, Raleigh police officers assisted Harris’ ex-wife with retrieving items from her home. They searched the house and a gun safe inside, but found no weapons.

Investigators said Frances Harris told them that he might have pawned some guns, but she thought he had 20 to 30 weapons that were unaccounted for.

New use of federal law

Harris posted bail after being arrested on the state charges of violating the protective order. That was when federal prosecutors stepped in with charges of federal gun law violations alleging he possessed ammunition from out of state while subject to the court order.

Harris was detained by federal marshals after a criminal complaint was filed on Feb. 25. He had an appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge James E. Gates on Feb. 28. At that brief hearing, he waived his right to a probable cause hearing, and Gates ordered him under further detention in the custody of the U.S. Marshal.

“This is a good example of how the United States Attorney’s Office can swoop in and assist state and local law enforcement agencies in domestic violence cases,” said Thomas Walker, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, a 44-county region that spans from Raleigh east to the coast.

The federal government and Wake County have a joint task force where investigators work with the sheriff’s office and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Bad timing, lawyer says

John Fanney, the Raleigh attorney representing Harris, said he had never seen the federal gun laws used in such a way in Wake County, but that such a move did not surprise him in the current climate of the gun control debate.

“Mr. Harris’ timing truly couldn’t be worse with regards to how he finds himself in this,” Fanney said.

Harris is accused of possessing ammunition that was transported across state lines while he was under a court order.

Fanney declined to discuss his defense strategy, but he said his client’s stockbroker has an office in the same building where his ex-wife works. He also added that it was his understanding that Harris had turned his weapons over for safekeeping to the Sheriff’s Office in Halifax County, where he also has an 80-acre farm.

Walker said he hopes to set up similar programs across the sweeping district in an effort to curb domestic violence.

“The key is letting these counties know about the tools we have,” Walker said.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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