An illustration of a woman dangling from a judge's gavel as she perilously hangs over a field of guns and rifles aimed upwards at her ominously.
Drue Wagner

Domestic Abusers Under Protective Orders Often Get to Keep Their Guns

Fewer than 10 of the 254 counties in Texas have standard protocols forcing subjects of an order to hand over their firearms as required by law.


Michelle Pitcher is a white woman with a slight smile, her wavy brown hair falling over her shoulders. She's wearing a dark v-neck shirt.

A version of this story ran in the November / December 2023 issue.

Editor’s Note: For more on domestic violence, see Michelle Pitcher’s recent report on domestic violence murders in Texas.

That Sunday, Sherita Lynch heard the gunshots from her car. A human services practitioner with Advocate for All, Lynch was on her way to meet with Stephen Broderick for a supervised custody visit with his son Cayden, about to be dropped off by Stephen’s ex-wife Amanda. Lynch was only seconds from the meeting spot on Austin’s heavily trafficked Great Hills Trail road when she heard what sounded like a crash, followed by a series of quick pops, according to a police report. 

She pulled into the designated meeting spot, a parking lot, and encountered a crime scene. 

Two cars, a black 2018 Ford Taurus and a black 2015 Infiniti, were mangled together. The hood of the Infiniti was pushed up, car parts strewn around the concrete. Inside the SUV were Amanda and her 17-year-old daughter Alyssa, both dead or dying from multiple gunshot wounds. Alyssa’s boyfriend Willie Simmons III, 18, lay face down on the ground, surrounded by onlookers. He had been shot in his torso.

Amanda, Alyssa, and Simmons were soon declared dead at the scene. And Cayden was missing—the report states that Lynch panicked until she learned he had been picked up by a concerned passerby and was safe with officers. 

Stephen Broderick had ambushed them. 

Lynch told Austin Police officers at the scene that she had spotted Broderick walking south, away from the chaos on April 18, 2021, holding a gun in his right hand, according to the police report. (Lynch told police she could ID the weapon as a Glock 9 mm.)

Lynch, a certified human services practitioner (a job similar to social worker), is the chief executive officer and founder of Advocate for All, a small company offering mediation, supervised visitation, and other services in the Austin area. She had been overseeing custody visits for the couple since August 2020. They had a routine: Amanda typically brought her mom, who lives in Waco, or sister along because she feared Stephen, according to the police report. She would leave their son and park elsewhere, and Lynch would alert Stephen when Amanda had left. Only then was Stephen permitted to come see his son. 

A lot of safeguards were in place. All of them failed.

Stephen Broderick should not have had a gun on the day he shot and killed three people. For one thing, he was the subject of a protective order, meaning he was not legally allowed to possess a gun in the state of Texas. 

As police have not disclosed the specific weapon used to commit the murders, it is unclear how and when Broderick got the gun he used to commit the crime.

But according to police reports, other officials may have known Broderick, a former Travis County sheriff’s deputy, still had a gun despite the court order. 

Lynch told one officer she knew that Stephen was typically armed, but “that she and Stephen came to an understanding that she would leave her firearm in her car and he would leave his in his vehicle when the visitation was occuring,” according to an interview report written by APD Officer Eric Heinz on the day of the shooting. 

Lynch’s lawyer, Richard Gray, told the Texas Observer that contrary to the police report, Lynch “did not know Broderick had a gun.” 

In the early morning the day after the triple murder, Travis County sheriff’s deputies arrested Stephen in the city of Manor. They found a tan handgun tucked into his waistband and an extra magazine in his pocket. On the gun’s serial number plate, someone had written “F U.”  

In 2009, Texas state law changed to require courts to suspend the firearm licenses of subjects of domestic violence protective orders. (Before that, courts were authorized to suspend the licenses, but not required to do so). That same year at least 110 Texans died of domestic violence homicide. At least two of them had active restraining orders against their abuser at the time of their death, and another was planning to apply for one the day after she was killed. 

Under the Texas family code as well as under federal law, subjects of domestic violence protective orders are not allowed to possess a firearm for the duration of the order. Despite these prohibitions, domestic violence gun deaths happen every year—in rural and urban areas, in marriages and dating relationships, to people of all genders and sexualities. In many cases, like Broderick’s, the former or current partner who was killed had sought or obtained a protective order but was killed anyway. Often, other family members and friends became collateral damage. 

Due to pressure from gun owners and the National Rifle Association, it wasn’t until 2012—when a gunman killed his mother then rampaged through Sandy Hook Elementary killing 26 others—that many legislators in other states began raising the alarm about the link between guns and domestic violence, and eventually about the power to remove guns by using protective orders. 

The Supreme Court is set to consider the constitutionality of firearm prohibitions for domestic violence protective orders—and could scrap protections altogether.

Now, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to consider the constitutionality of firearm prohibitions for domestic violence protective orders—and could scrap these protections altogether. 

Justices will hear arguments in November about a case involving a Texas man, Zackey Rahimi, whose girlfriend took out a protective order against him in 2020 following a violent altercation during which he threatened her with a gun. While under the protective order, he was involved in five different shootings. Rahimi was indicted by a federal grand jury for violating the federal law prohibiting him from having a gun—and he followed up by claiming that prohibition violated the Second Amendment. 

Although the case questions the legality of the federal law, local officials worry that state statutes might also be at risk if the Supreme Court rules in Rahimi’s favor. 

“All of the various ways in which the states have gone about disarming people subject to protective orders, whether they do it directly as a protective order or whether they make it a part of their criminal laws. … All of these laws would be in jeopardy. Every single one of them,” said Fredericka Sargent, assistant criminal district attorney for Tarrant County. 

In Texas, gun ownership and intimate partner homicides with a gun both went up between 2019 and 2021. In fact, 75 percent of all Texans killed by current or former partners in 2021 were shot—more than all other methods of homicide combined, according to crimes tracked by volunteers for the nonprofit the Texas Council on Family Violence.

At least 55 Texans were killed between 2015 and 2021 in domestic violence incidents by people who were or had previously been subject to protective orders, those reports show. 

At least 34 of these victims were shot, according to an analysis by the Observer. This is likely an undercount, as jurisdictions provide different levels of information on these murders. In larger and more urban jurisdictions, reporting tends to be more robust. The Observer verified that at least 19 of the shooters were under protective orders at the time of the murder—in several other cases, the victim was in the process of obtaining an order or had been denied protection by a judge. 

Part of the problem is patchwork enforcement. Individual counties—and often individual jurists—are the sole enforcers, so abusers who are the target of protective orders sometimes keep their firearms (or buy new ones), and some kill. Federal and state law alike fail to lay out a mechanism to make sure people turn over their guns once they’re legally prohibited from possessing them.

Of the 254 counties in Texas—an aggressively gun-friendly state—fewer than 10 have standard protocols for having subjects of protective orders hand over their guns as required by law. And even the few counties with protocols still have problems.

Background checks generally ensure that these red flags are raised before someone can buy a gun legally at retail, but if an abuser already owns a gun, borrows or steals one, or buys one from an individual rather than a licensed seller, the path to protecting victims becomes much less straightforward.

The Observer identified 20 counties, including Bexar, Midland, Harris, Dallas, and Travis, in which someone was shot in a domestic violence incident by a person who was or had been the subject of a protective order between 2015 and 2021. We asked local district attorneys and sheriffs in all of those counties to weigh in on the cases and the reasons why domestic violence orders meant to provide protection sometimes fail. Officials from seven counties responded. 

Several, including Parker County District Attorney Jeff Swain, described domestic violence as a “huge problem.” 

“I probably have not worked a day in the last year without touching a case involving domestic violence,” Swain said. 

In the cases analyzed by the Observer, the shooters killed themselves in 12 cases. In eight cases, more than one person was shot, not including the shooter, records show.

In February 2020, Andrew Munoz shot and killed Marisela Cadena at a restaurant in San Antonio. Days later, he shot and killed himself. Only weeks before, Munoz had threatened to kill Cadena and her family members. Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales’ office had approved Cadena’s application for a protective order against Munoz the morning she was murdered.

“The challenges with these protective orders is, number one, getting the complainant to agree to the protective order, to agree to have them come in, sit down and talk with us,” Gonzales told the Observer. “And then we have to serve the respondent.”

On September 27, 2021, Travae Jackson was shot and killed by her ex-boyfriend Kionne Lewis at her Midland apartment. Lewis, who had a history of stalking, was the subject of an emergency protective order. After killing Jackson, he fled to New Mexico, where he was eventually arrested. 

In this Midland County case, the protective order was handled by a magistrate’s office rather than going through the strict systems laid out by the Midland County District Attorney’s Office, according to District Attorney Laura Nodolf. 

Nodolf said protective orders issued involving family violence include a stipulation that the respondents must surrender their guns to the sheriff’s department and then present a signed receipt to the DA’s office. If they fail to do so, they’re hit with a noncompliance motion, which could result in them being jailed for contempt of court. 

But in all cases, the office relies in part on information from the victims and subjects of the protective order themselves to determine whether the abuser has guns. And the subjects of the protective orders must then give up their guns at the court’s direction. 

“Unfortunately, sometimes it doesn’t matter what defendants are told,” Nodolf said. “There are just some defendants that are just determined to kill their victim. There’s not much we can do to stop it.” 

“There are just some defendants that are just determined to kill their victim. There’s not much we can do to stop it.”

On July 1, 2021, 24-year-old Layla Steele was shot and killed by her ex-boyfriend Zacchaeus Gaston in Houston. Gaston also shot Steele’s one-year-old son, who survived. The year before, Steele had broken up with and gotten a Harris County protective order against Gaston, who had a history of aggravated assault, family violence charges, and sexual assault—he was out on bond for multiple felonies and wearing a court-ordered ankle monitor, which he cut off the morning of the murder. Gaston violated the order multiple times leading up to the murder, according to the Texas Council on Family Violence. 

Raw numbers for domestic violence murders seem staggering in Harris County, because it’s the state’s most populous, its records are readily available, and researchers have studied that data to find solutions. Between 2019 and 2022, the Houston Police Department attributed 251 homicides to family violence, according to a study done by the University of Houston’s Institute for Research on Women, Gender and Sexuality. 

The group also draws a correlation between the legalization of permitless carry in Texas in September 2021 and a rise in the number of domestic violence homicides being carried out with guns.

“While other factors play in, the easy availability of guns puts many women at risk for homicide, as well as for terroristic threats of homicide within IPV [intimate partner violence] situations,” the report states. 

In these counties, the Observer verified 19 instances where domestic violence victims were shot by and killed someone who was under a protective order and banned from carrying a gun at the time of the murder, including in the instances above.

Thirty-one people, including some of the shooters, died in those homicides. Among the dead were 17-year-old Alyssa Broderick, her mother Amanda, and Alyssa’s boyfriend. 

Stephen Broderick’s then nine-year-old son Cayden told officers on the day of the triple murder, April 18, 2021, that his father had been the shooter. 

Broderick’s violence had been brewing for years. Stephen and Amanda Broderick had married in May 2010. On June 3, 2020, things had shifted seismically.

That day, Alyssa, Stephen’s adoptive daughter, told her mother that Stephen had sexually assaulted her in their Elgin home—both that day and on numerous occasions in the past. Stephen had lived with the family since 2007. Amanda immediately drove Alyssa 30 minutes away to Dell Children’s Hospital for a sexual assault exam, and notified the police. Amanda took her children and left Stephen.

Stephen was arrested and held in jail for more than two weeks. 

The night of his arrest, Stephen called her “approximately 30 times” and sent her emails. He also attempted to get in touch through his brother. 

At the time, Stephen was a Travis County sheriff’s detective—his brother also worked for the department. The office placed Stephen on administrative leave after his arrest, and his peace officer license was put on administrative hold. 

“I’m afraid that to him, a protective order will be just a piece of paper.”

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On June 26, 2020—just weeks after hearing of the alleged abuse and 10 months before she was murdered—Amanda Broderick filed an application for a protective order with the help of the Travis County Attorney’s Office. At the office of the 201st Judicial District Court of Travis County, attorneys filed official documentation recounting Amanda’s and her daughter’s biggest fears. 

“I’m afraid he will try to hurt me or my children because these allegations have come out and he may lose his career,” Amanda wrote in her application for the protective order. “Stephen has prior military experience and is SWAT trained. … Our family is trying to deal with the fallout of his abuse, and we do not feel safe around Stephen.”

Her daughter’s accompanying statement tragically proved prescient. “I’m afraid that to him, a protective order will be just a piece of paper. I’m worried that he’ll come after my family and try to take my brother. I’m afraid he might hurt me or my mom for coming forward.”

Stephen resigned from the sheriff’s office in July 2020. Until his resignation, Broderick’s status as an officer would have shielded him from turning in his guns since there is a statutory exemption carved out for police officers. 

But once he resigned from the department and had his officer’s license put on hold, the law seems clear: He should have turned in his guns.

Texas law may prohibit subjects of protective orders from having guns, but the law doesn’t have a relinquishment process or standards built in. The most guidance judges get comes from the administrative code, which says they must “orally admonish the person” and “provide the person with a written admonishment.” States that adopted proactive and effective measures to remove guns from subjects of protective orders are still the minority and face other hurdles. 

California firearm relinquishment efforts are robust and surrenders are recorded. Still “every year thousands of Californians illegally fail to relinquish their guns after being legally prohibited from possessing them,” according to the nonprofit Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The center is led by former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who survived a shooting at a political event in 2011. She began focusing on the link between gun violence and domestic violence in 2015, when she formed the Women’s Coalition for Common Sense

A 2014 article in the American Journal of Public Health studied the ways some California courts screened protective order subjects to see if they had guns that needed to be turned over. These methods included combing through databases that track gun purchases, interviewing the person seeking the order, and looking through court records. “No single source was adequate,” researchers found. 

Experts agree that there are ways to make relinquishment laws more effective in domestic violence protective order cases. Relinquishment should be mandatory, the law should provide clear guidelines about where guns should go, courts should require proof of compliance, and judges should be encouraged to escalate the situation if the subject refuses to surrender firearms.

But laws in most places don’t satisfy these criteria. 

To fix this, there needs to be training at several levels, says Julia Weber, implementation director with the Giffords Law Center. Judges need training on relinquishment laws and what questions to ask victims to suss out potential danger, court staff need training on procedure, and law enforcement needs training to ensure prohibitions are logged in the right databases. Successful implementation goes deep into the details: Is there a section on the protective order application that allows victims to disclose whether the subject has firearms? Is the subject of the order clearly told how and when to comply with the relinquishment order?

Weber said this last element has a major effect on whether these situations turn deadly. 

“It’s the processes, the procedures, the policies being implemented that actually make a difference and actually save lives.”

“It’s the processes, the procedures, the policies being implemented that actually make a difference and actually save lives,” she said.

It’s important, Weber said, for these policies to have teeth. It is a crime to violate the terms of a protective order in Texas, including possessing a firearm when prohibited, but that only matters if those in power pay attention and pursue charges. 

In some cases, government agencies and officials can open themselves up to financial liability for failing to adhere to procedures. Earlier this year, the U.S. government reached a $144.5 million settlement of a civil suit regarding the November 2017 mass shooting in Sutherland Springs. In that case, plaintiffs alleged the U.S. Air Force hadn’t properly logged information into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which could have prevented the killer from purchasing the gun used in the attack. 

On November 29, 2015, Monica Deming was on the phone with her dad when she noticed someone trying to use the keypad on her front door to enter her Odessa home. Her father, a former police officer, rushed over, but he and active investigators didn’t arrive in time. Her ex-boyfriend Brandon Leyva had broken into the house and killed both Deming and himself. 

What Deming—and local officials—didn’t know at the time: Leyva had previously been the subject of two protective orders filed by different women in two different counties. Those documents were buried in court files, where they couldn’t be easily accessed unless someone knew what they were looking for. 

Texas state Representative Brooks Landgraf met Monica’s father, Jon Nielsen, while knocking on doors for his campaign. The West Texas Republican soon became the primary sponsor of what would become Senate Bill 325, or “Monica’s Law”. 

The law, which passed the Texas Legislature in 2019, created a statewide database of protective orders and applications for protective orders that law enforcement and prosecutors can access. 

Nielsen played a big role in shaping the legislation, Landgraf told the Observer. “He was really approaching this from two angles. One was as a grief-stricken father. He also spent a long career as a police officer, so he had some insight into how domestic violence cases are handled in law enforcement,” Landgraf said. 

As of May, the system held logs of more than 102,000 emergency temporary protective orders and nearly 12,000 final protective orders due to family violence, according to the Texas Office of Court Administration. Most entries are only visible to law enforcement and court staff. The database, however, allows applicants for protective orders to choose whether the order gets listed publicly. In May, there were only 279 public listings. 

Texas legislators have attempted to strengthen the powers of protective orders—passing seven laws in the 2023 session alone that expand protections for applicants, standardize forms, and make databases more searchable. But none attempted to strengthen provisions that require guns to be surrendered.

Some experts have called for domestic fatality review teams to pool data to create a more comprehensive look at the role guns play in domestic violence homicide.

Several Texas studies have already found a link between domestic violence and the abuser’s illegal possession of firearms.

Texas Council on Family Violence found that out of the 46 intimate partner homicides in Harris County in 2021, 35 were committed with a firearm. In its own analysis, the nonprofit determined that 12 of those shooters were prohibited by state law from having a gun, and 14 were prohibited by federal law. 

In 2017, the Dallas County Adult Intimate Partner Violence Fatality Review Team analyzed 76 homicide cases in the county between 2009 and 2013 and found that five women killed had gotten protective orders against their killers or were in the process of getting one. 

While state and federal databases are crucial for information sharing across jurisdictions, the bulk of the responsibility falls back on individual counties—where judges, magistrates, sheriffs, and district attorneys ultimately create policies, procedures, and cultures around protective orders. 

Everywhere in Texas, if the subject of a domestic violence protective order is found to illegally possess a gun, they’ve committed a Class A misdemeanor, and the punishment is up to a year in jail and/or a $4,000 fine.

But many places fail to instruct subjects how to legally and safely dispose of their guns, either in written or oral court instructions or in paperwork or via other officials. Each jurisdiction differs on where guns are surrendered, how they’re tracked, and whether receipts are issued. There is no model language that effectively cuts through the confusion. 

More than a decade ago, State District Judge Patricia Macias of El Paso tried to set a standard that could easily be replicated across the state, making the county one of the first in Texas to look critically at the role of gun surrenders and domestic violence protective orders. 

Macias, now retired, spent over ten years as the judge in El Paso’s 388th District Court. From the bench, she heard domestic violence cases and requests for protective orders. Outside her official duties, she also taught domestic violence theory and judicial practice for the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. 

“What did I do wrong? Could I have done something different? What was missing?”

“Whenever there was a shooting here between intimate partners, my first reaction was to go and see if it was one of my cases,” Macias said. “To ask, ‘What did I do wrong? Could I have done something different? What was missing?’”

In 2004, a young police officer in El Paso was shot and killed while responding to a domestic violence call; Macias recalled that his killer was already under a protective order. She tapped her knowledge of what was going on in places like Seattle and New Hampshire, where protocols for gun surrender were already in place—to help create a pilot gun surrender protocol. The process took time. Macias and other local officials created an advisory committee made up of experts, police chiefs, district attorneys, public defenders, advocates, and representatives from federal agencies in 2005, rolled out the protocols in 2007, then published a manual with recommendations in 2011. 

The manual, which outlined the protocols and gave guidance on how to implement them, was shared widely in Texas with the help of the Office of Court Administration. 

In domestic violence cases, judges were given information about how to ask about firearms, to inform the victim that firearms were supposed to be surrendered, and to tell the subject of the protective order exactly how to give up their gun. 

Many counties followed, but those that adopted strict standards remain in the minority. Too often, efforts to disarm abusers often have to be championed by a sheriff, a DA, or a judge, and if those elected officials lose their power, so does the program.

In Dallas County, former District Judge Rob Cañas identified one of the primary hurdles in the way of clear surrender protocols: gun storage space. “Considering the numbers that we were expecting to get, the logistical issue of storage was huge,” Cañas said. “[We had questions like] how are you going to collect it? How are you going to return it? How are you going to maintain it? Those were very tough questions.” He negotiated a deal with a local gun range to store surrendered guns in 2015. That partnership has been ongoing ever since.

“Even if it just saved one person’s life, then it’s worth all the work and it’s worth all the protocol,” Cañas said.

In Bexar County, the DA’s office flags the protective order cases where guns might be a threat to alert the local judge, to make sure the court is aware of every instance in which an abuser has or might have access to a gun so the court can mandate its removal as part of a protective order. If the protective order is tied to a criminal case in which a gun was used, the DA’s office orders that gun to be destroyed. The county has seen an exponential increase in protective order applications since implementing an online application process in 2019. 

“There is a proliferation of guns in Texas, so I want to be sure that we’re doing everything that we can to take the guns out of the hands of people that shouldn’t have guns,” Gonzales said.

“There really was no mechanism to track any of that … there’s no way to know where someone’s going with it or not.”

Former Harris County State District Judge Judy Warne was on the bench when she met with officials from the sheriff’s and police departments to discuss what she saw as an obvious problem. “A lot of people who really wanted to comply with the order gave it [the gun] to someone else. … Some of them probably sold them, maybe some pawned them, but we don’t know,” Warne said. “There really was no mechanism to track any of that, because part of the other problem with the way the statute is there’s no way to know where someone’s going with it or not.”

Harris County in 2018 adopted the Safe Surrender Program, requiring subjects of domestic violence protective orders to surrender their guns to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. The sheriff’s office used its own budget to support the program. 

Even with multi-agency cooperation, Harris County’s gun surrender protocols still rely on the word of people being accused of domestic violence. It’s impossible to make guarantees. “It’s basically the honor system,” said Lieutenant John Klafka with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. “We have to go off what they tell us because there’s no way for us to know for sure who has guns and who doesn’t. I’m sure we’ve missed some. I’m sure people have said ‘I’ve sold it’ or ‘I gave it away’… there’s no way for us to verify that person has a gun.” 

“It’s called the Safe Surrender Program for a reason,” he said. “They are voluntarily giving us their guns to hold for safekeeping.”

In Broderick’s case, a civil suit filed by Willie Simmons III’s parents—Willie Simmons Jr. and Vanessa Penson—and Amanda’s parents—Charlene and Edward Ramirez—points at systemic failures they believe led to the tragedy. The suit names Stephen Broderick, Travis County, the Travis County Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff Sally Hernandez, Advocate for All, LLC, and Sherita Lynch as defendants. 

Eighteen-year-old Willie was shot and killed while accompanying his girlfriend and her mother on the custody visit drop-off for his girlfriend’s little brother. 

Simmons, a high school football player, came along for added protection and security. He was sitting in the back seat with Cayden when Broderick opened fire. Some bystanders told his parents they saw Simmons push Cayden out of the way.

Simmons’ parents spoke about the loss of their son who had secured a scholarship to the University of North Texas to play football. 

Drawing on their shared love of the sport, his father Willie Simmons Jr. talked at his son’s memorial service about the concept of a “fifth quarter,” where he imagined his son had made it to heaven. Some community members, inspired by the eulogy, made bracelets to commemorate Willie’s life. They bear the number nine, his football jersey number. One side reads “All gas, no breaks”—one of his favorite sayings—and, on the other side, “Live life in the fifth quarter.” 

Vanessa Penson, Simmons’ mother, saw her son the day of his killing. He had stopped by when Penson was cooking, and her daughter was there with her four-year-old. Penson will never forget hearing Willie exclaim, “Is that my niece?” Penson told the Observer she sometimes repeats that phrase to herself, trying to capture her son’s tone. 

Willie and Alyssa Broderick met in middle school and began dating when Alyssa was a freshman in high school. They were an extremely close couple, and their bond radiated out to their families. Simmons Jr. had accompanied his son and Alyssa, Amanda, and Cayden to Houston to celebrate Amanda’s birthday. They all hung out, and visited an escape room and an outlet mall. While riding around, the young couple pointed to a luxury SUV and vowed to get their own one day. They shared dreams and seemed determined to explore the world together. 

Simmons Jr. supported the relationship. He loved how welcoming Alyssa’s family had been toward his son. “It would have been a really great place for him to be, a really great family for him to be a part of. And I would have signed off on it any day,” Simmons said.

A great family, that is, with the exception of Alyssa’s estranged stepfather, who is now doing life without parole at the Ramsey unit in Southeast Texas.