On Monday morning, April 12, 2021, Shaun Varsos killed his wife, Marie, and his mother-in-law, Deborah Sisco, before he killed himself. The story has been everywhere these past few days, as news reporters keep asking questions about how such a tragedy could have occurred.
This is deeply personal to us, because one of our firm’s partners, Rachel Upshaw, was representing Marie in her divorce, and she is the one who advised Marie to file for an order of protection. But because of exploitable loopholes in Tennessee’s statute, her estranged husband was able to get his hands on a firearm and take her life.
Marie followed Rachel’s advice and the police’s advice. She did exactly what was asked of her, and exactly what the law required – but the laws as they are written could not protect her.
It’s time we changed that for good.
How an order of protection works
An ex parte order of protection is a type of emergency restraining order that a judge will grant if he or she thinks a person is in immediate danger. The ex parte order of protection is based strictly on the Petitioner’s account of what happened that caused them to be in fear of immediate danger. Failure to comply with an order of protection can leave a person open to a contempt action, like a fine or jail time, and can lead to the immediate arrest of an individual even if police do not have a warrant.
Under most circumstances, a hearing is scheduled within 15 days after the ex parte order is granted, in order for the Court to determine if the order of protection will be granted after hearing all proof, including the alleged abuser’s side of the story. Further, if the Court does grant the order of protection after hearing the proof, the alleged abuser will be required to execute an affidavit (affidavits are written statements that a person swears are true) that he or she will turn over all firearms to someone else.
How the laws currently protect abusers and perpetrators of domestic violence
There are two loopholes that work in favor of the person against whom they are filed.
- There is no required follow-up when it comes to turning the guns over. Law enforcement is not required to check whether or not the accused actually turned the firearms over.
- The firearms can be given to anyone. In other states, law enforcement agencies receive the guns, but in Tennessee, you could give them to your own mother and that would be perfectly legal.
In Marie’s case, as Karla Miller explained to FOX 17 News, Varsos’ lawyer “did represent to the court that day that he [the attorney] had been advised that Varsos had indeed dispossessed himself of those firearms, and in fact given them to his family.”
Was Varsos telling the truth? We do not know. What we do know is that a woman we knew and cared about and wanted to help is dead, and it seems there’s little that can be done under the current state of our laws in Tennessee to prevent something like this from happening again.
It’s time to give orders of protection the support they deserve
For years, we have heard people describe orders of protection as “just a piece of paper.” We do not accept this, and it is time for all of us to raise our voices and demand more, so we can truly protect women, children, and men who are being abused by their intimate and domestic partners. Here are some things we think should be done:
- Mandate that law enforcement follow up on dispossession of firearms. Make sure that the guns and/or other deadly weapons are removed from the homes and properties of the person named in the court order.
- Remove the ability for family members or close friends to accept the firearms and weapons. These items should be held by law enforcement.
- Enact “red flag” laws. Extreme Risk Protection Orders prohibit a person from possessing or purchasing a firearm during the time the Order is in effect, effective within 48 hours of the Order. Failure to comply with the order would be a Class A misdemeanor. A bill was introduced in the Tennessee General Assembly in 2020 to enact these laws, and it has gone nowhere. Call your representatives today and demand they take action.
- Reduce the amount of time between an ex parte order of protection and the court hearing. Fifteen days is too much time before the respondent must turn over any firearms or weapons.
What can I do to protect my loved ones?
Petitioning for an emergency order of protection is still the best thing you can do under the law to protect yourself and your loved ones. There are mechanisms in place to hold your abuser accountable if he or she violates a court order.
But you should also have a back-up plan to keep yourself safe. If your friend or loved one is being abused, offer help when you can. Maybe that means watching the kids while your loved one speaks to the police, or assisting financially, or setting your loved one up in a hotel for a few days. Be open minded and respectful, and listen when they talk.
What happened to Marie and Deborah is tragic in every sense of the word, and we are heartbroken. But we are also more determined than ever to fight for better laws and better protection for our clients, our loved ones, and our community. We will continue to fight to protect victims of abuse and violence. We will continue to fight for better, stronger laws.
We hope you’ll join us in this fight. Together, we can effect the change we need.
Karla C. Miller has devoted her entire career to the practice of family law in Tennessee. She attended Auburn University and Nashville School of Law, and upon graduation in 1996, she opened her own law firm and has been assisting families throughout Tennessee since then. Learn more about Karla C. Miller here.