Shooting raises questions about gun ownership

Last updated: October 05. 2013 12:22AM - 3010 Views
By - rdupuis@civitasmedia.com

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WILKES-BARRE — Vito J. Aiello had a criminal past. He also, allegedly, had access to a gun.

The city man stands accused of shooting his wife to death Sept. 26, before turning the gun on himself.

And that raises questions about whether Aiello’s history of harassment, terroristic threats, stalking, at least one previous protection-from-abuse order and a request for an involuntary mental-health commitment would — or should — have prevented him from purchasing or possessing firearms.

In Pennsylvania, there are three main types of cases in which gun ownership may be affected, said Susan Sorenson, a professor with the Penn School of Social Policy and Practice with the University of Pennsylvania: certain protection-from-abuse (restraining order) cases, misdemeanor domestic violence convictions or domestic violence crime scenes in which a weapon may be implicated.

There were 141 domestic-violence fatalities in the state in 2012, according to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, claiming the lives of 110 victims and 31 perpetrators. Nearly 53 percent of those victims were shot, the agency said.

Aiello was arraigned on an open count of criminal homicide Monday afternoon as he lay recovering in a hospital bed from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound to the face. He is to be held without bail.

Firearm possession

Regarding the law and guns, the devil is in the details.

State law permits the party who seeks a PFA order to ask a judge to have the alleged abuser to turn over firearms to the court, or a judge may order the gun owner to do so — may, not must, experts emphasize.

“Pennsylvania does not require someone who is under a restraining order to relinquish their guns. The judge has to issue a relinquishing order,” Sorenson said.

“Pennsylvania is a little bit behind the times,” she added, noting that some states require relinquishing weapons in connection with domestic violence restraining orders.

Paula Triano, executive director of the Domestic Violence Service Center, which serves Luzerne and Carbon counties, also noted that there can be a gap between what the court may do and what it actually does.

“The judge has the right to require the relinquishment of the weapon, but does it always happen?” Triano asked.

Even when a PFA mandates guns to be turned over, however, such prohibition only lasts for the life of a PFA, which are valid for up to three years in Pennsylvania.

Jane Aiello, 47, of Wilkes-Barre, had filed for divorce against her husband of 22 years on Sept. 13, claiming their relationship was “irretrievably broken” and her “condition intolerable,” but there is no evidence of her seeking a PFA. And a PFA sought by a former intimate partner of Vito Aiello in 2009 would have expired.

Conviction issue

Moving beyond PFAs, there is the question of convictions.

According to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, both federal and state law “prohibit known domestic violence abusers from having firearms in their possession.” Specifically, anyone convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence crime by a state court may not, under federal law, possess a firearm — and that is a lifetime ban, the coalition notes.

Court records reveal Aiello made threats against a girlfriend during an extramarital affair in 2004. He pleaded guilty to harassment, including terroristic threats and stalking, and was sentenced to one year probation in that case, in which his wife contacted authorities out of fear he was on his way to Exeter to kill the woman.

Harassment can be considered domestic violence under state law.

Finally, Sorenson noted that while police may remove guns from a domestic violence crime scenes in which a weapon is implicated, that refers only to the weapon in question, not necessarily all weapons in the home, potentially leaving “an arsenal on the wall,” she said.

Mental health

Unrelated to domestic abuse, state law also prohibits anyone who has been convicted of felonies or involuntarily committed under the Pennsylvania Mental Health Procedural Act from having firearms.

Following the 2004 case, Jane Aiello filed for an involuntary commitment for her husband “fearing that he was going to hurt someone along with himself,” court records say.

But it is not clear Friday whether Vito Aiello was actually committed and treated, which could impact whether the incident would affect his right to own a firearm.

Contacted Friday, Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis said she could not speak to whether Aiello may have legally possessed the .357-caliber Magnum pistol allegedly used in his wife’s slaying.

“I cannot comment about that it this time being that it is still under investigation,” Salavantis said.

Sorenson acknowledged that while the law can be complex, it is important for advocates and victims to understand when and how it applies to firearms in domestic violence cases.

“Unfortunately, some people get a sense that it’s sort of futile, that there is nothing that can be done,” she said.

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