At 27, Valerie Martinez had never known a life without fear.
Her earliest memories were of hiding from her father in the tiny space between her daybed and the wall when he came home drunk and volatile. He once kicked Martinez’s sister so hard that she vomited, then threw her into the empty bathtub with a thud. He insulted their mother, an undocumented Mexican immigrant, with racist slurs and dared the children to contact the police when he beat her. “Call them,” he taunted. “They’ll take her away.”
As a teenager, Martinez started dating one of her brother’s friends. She worked the late shift at a Sonic fast-food restaurant so she’d have a safe place to be when her father typically returned home. Her boyfriend asked her to move in with him and get married, and she immediately said yes.
Looking back on it, Martinez says her father’s violence left her without any model of what a normal relationship should be. When her new husband’s temper first flared, she barely even noticed. Then, one time, he got jealous when she was driving somewhere with a male friend. He rear-ended the car they were in, smashing the tail light, she recalled. Sometimes, he would come home after she was asleep, flip on the lights, pull the covers off her, and accuse her of being unfaithful.
Martinez applied to the police academy in Colorado and, upon graduating, was hired as a patrol officer. Even as she responded to calls about men who had beaten their wives, she continued to feel powerless to escape her own violent relationship. Her husband would show up at her station, Martinez said, and accuse her of cheating on him with her coworkers. One night when he hit her, she decided she had to call the police. “My little girls were watching and it was getting worse,” she remembers. The officers charged him with domestic violence and helped her fill out a protective order, which forced him to move out. Even as she filed for divorce, she felt guilty and sad. “Love is not like a water faucet,” she said recently. “You can’t just shut it off.”
Soon after, she met a man online, and he moved to Colorado to live with her and her two young daughters. Even that didn’t stop Martinez’s ex from tormenting her. One November day, she said, he came to the house to take her girls out for ice cream and ended up hitting her in the face in front of her new boyfriend. She decided they had to get away. In a rush, they packed both their cars and headed to her boyfriend’s hometown: Thibodaux, Louisiana. She drove 1,000 miles with her girls, their black lab, and most of their belongings crammed into the back of her red Ford Bronco.
It was the beginning of a new life for Martinez, but also a new chapter for domestic abusers in Louisiana, a state that often ranks among the top three for rates of women murdered by men. It took almost 20 years, but due in large part to her work, Martinez’s parish now has one of the most comprehensive, innovative systems in the country for getting guns out of the hands of abusers—a system that has served as the model for similar reforms across this conservative state.
Lafourche Parish, where Thibodaux is the seat of government, is a community of about 100,000 in the heart of Louisiana’s Cajun Bayou. As visitors approach from New Orleans on state Highway 308, they pass swamps and fields of sugarcane, as well as a series of white wooden lawn signs, each bearing one of the Ten Commandments. On a hot day last August, a dead alligator lay belly-up on the road side. Every few miles, a huge roadside billboard reminded newcomers that Sheriff Craig Webre was running for re-election.
Webre had been elected in 1992 at the age of 30. He had gone to law school while he worked in the department, passed the bar right after he was sworn in as sheriff, and quickly established a reputation as a smart and principled champion of the community. His office hired Martinez about a month after she arrived, in 2001.
Martinez started out as a patrol officer. She remembers that whenever she was sent on a domestic violence call, it felt almost like she was looking through a window at an earlier version of herself. Martinez found that she could quickly create a rapport with victims of domestic abuse. She would tell them things she wished someone had told her: “This is only going to get worse,” and, importantly, “It does not have to define you.”
One day, as she walked to a convenience store up the street from the sheriff’s office for coffee, Martinez passed a woman sitting in a car, holding a baby that could not have been more than a few weeks old. When Martinez asked if she was OK, the woman said in Spanish that she was a Mexican immigrant who had married a man who was now holding her prisoner. Over the next several weeks, Martinez said, she worked to find shelter for the woman and her son, and to build a case against her husband. She was eventually able to arrest him on domestic violence charges, for which he was convicted.
But while Martinez was learning to build cases against some abusers, there was one type of case she found consistently vexing: abusers with guns. There are few places where hunting and the Second Amendment are more woven into local culture than Thibodaux, Louisiana. The slogan on the state license plate is Sportsman’s Paradise, and with more than 34,000 acres of publicly managed hunting land, the citizens of Lafourche Parish take those words seriously. More often than not, when police respond to a call, someone is going to have a gun. And when domestic violence is concerned, guns are a deadly ingredient. If an abuser has access to a firearm, their female victim is five times more likely to die.
When Martinez started work in Thibodaux in the early 2000s, local cops didn’t have many ways to get guns away from abusers. Anyone with a felony conviction was prohibited from having a gun under both state and federal law. But abusers with misdemeanor domestic violence convictions, or with active protective orders against them, were prohibited from having firearms only under federal law.
It was usually local cops, not federal officers, who came across a domestic abuser with a gun, either through a traffic stop or on a patrol call. But the local cops didn’t have the authority to enforce federal laws. And the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) almost never had the resources to swoop into a small town like Thibodaux to pursue a case of illegal gun possession.
Martinez was frustrated whenever she found a domestic abuser with a gun they were not supposed to have. So in 2009, when a report came out showing that Louisiana had more domestic violence homicides per capita than all but two other states, she made her move.
Sheriff Webre was a cowboy boot-wearing Republican with a stuffed alligator head on his desk, and he might have seemed like an unlikely person to get behind strict policies on domestic abusers and guns. But when he was an 18-year-old rookie, Webre answered a domestic violence call he’d never forgotten. He and his partner, a veteran officer, were sent to the home of a couple in their sixties. The wife answered the door, her face bruised and her nightgown torn to reveal the skin underneath. Webre was struck by the woman’s obvious humiliation, and expected to put her husband in handcuffs. Instead, his partner told the couple to “cool off and work it out.” Webre vowed that if he ever got a chance to help domestic violence victims, he would.
“I was haunted by that lady and that image,” he recalled.
When Martinez and her supervisor told Webre that they wanted to find a way to take guns from all domestic abusers, he backed them up immediately. They requested a meeting with the nearest ATF field office, and asked the federal agents how they could help them enforce the federal laws prohibiting people with domestic violence offenses from having guns. The ATF agents said that if Lafourche sheriff’s deputies could get every domestic abuser who was prohibited from having guns to sign a form saying they understood the law, it would make it easier to prove they were knowingly violating it. Also, if the local cops could collect important documents, like the report of when someone was found with an illegal firearm, it would make it easier for the ATF to act. They’d give the package to federal prosecutors, who could issue an indictment.
The Sheriff’s Office put together a list of every resident who had a domestic violence protective order active or a misdemeanor domestic violence conviction, and sent them letters telling them they were not permitted to have guns. Each person was asked to sign a form either describing their guns or swearing that they didn’t have any. If they had them, the Sheriff’s Office would help destroy them, sell them, store them, or transfer them to a friend or relative. The message was clear: We’re offering you the chance to get rid of your guns and comply with the law. If you pass it up and we catch you with them later, we’ll turn you over to the feds.
When Lafourche launched this effort a decade ago, initiatives enabling police to collect guns from domestic abusers and other people barred from having them were basically unheard of in the United States. California, now considered a model on this front, passed a law requiring people with prohibiting offenses to show proof they had turned in their guns in 2016; the state now has a squad that goes door to door to collect guns, too. King County, Washington, launched its pilot program in 2017. But even today, there are relinquishment laws in only 15 states, leaving tens of thousands of potentially dangerous people with guns because police haven’t developed a way to collect them.
During the first three years of the Lafourche initiative, from 2010 to 2012, deputies notified 170 residents that they were prohibited from having guns. The office collected 18 firearms, and that doesn’t include cases in which people made their own arrangements to have someone else hold their guns. They sent at least nine cases to the ATF, and Martinez and her colleagues also created a system to flag the name of any domestic abuser prohibited from having a gun.
In 2013, a triple homicide committed partly in Lafourche Parish helped the rest of the state wake up to the urgency of getting guns away from domestic abusers. Ben Freeman, a nurse with several protective orders on his record, suffocated and drowned his wife in neighboring Terrabonne Parish before shooting five more people in Lafourche.
Charmaine Caccioppi was a close friend of one of the women Freeman killed and a leader in the South Louisiana United Way. “If any other thing had been killing people at this rate, it would have been all boots on the ground,” she said recently.
In early 2014, Caccioppi and fellow activist Kim Sport visited Lafourche to learn about their work policing domestic violence cases. Martinez—who by then had been promoted to run the sheriff’s social service office—explained that a state law prohibiting people with protective orders and misdemeanor domestic violence convictions from having guns would give them significantly more power. The bill making it illegal for domestic abusers to have guns passed the Louisiana Legislature in 2014, but it did not require police to confiscate them. Still, seeing that swampy little Lafourche had implemented a gun relinquishment policy without problems made it hard for sheriffs in bigger, better-resourced jurisdictions to say it couldn’t be done. Sheriff Webre’s stature among law enforcement also helped: His peers knew he respected the Second Amendment and didn’t want to take guns away from people who were legally permitted to have them.
Martinez made numerous trips to the State Capitol in Baton Rouge, explaining how her team had been able to notify more than 500 residents that they were prohibited from having guns and, in most cases, help them find lawful ways to get rid of them. The activists had to redraft the bills many times—partly to get the National Rifle Association to remain neutral. But in 2018, the Louisiana state Legislature unanimously passed 27 laws designed to protect victims of domestic abuse.
Even so, Martinez kept hearing that law enforcement officers in other parishes were overwhelmed by the notion of collecting guns. That’s when Martinez and her friend Sunny Funk, head of the Family Violence Unit in Jefferson Parish, decided to take their show on the road, traveling all over the state to speak to groups of law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and judges about creating a process to help domestic abusers get rid of their guns. They had a menu of procedures to fit different communities, from small and rural to larger and more urban.
Funk remembers one of the first parishes they visited. The local officers slumped in their seats with their arms crossed, and visibly rolled their eyes. They said that collecting guns from prohibited people was unrealistic. But gradually, as Martinez told her own story of abuse, their audiences became receptive.
Back home in Lafourche, Martinez had created a more comprehensive support system for abuse survivors than nearly anywhere else in the country. The Sheriff’s Office requires each of its 244 officers to get 16 hours of domestic violence training before they are hired, plus a refresher every year—more than twice the state requirement. In a coral-colored building across the parking lot from the sheriff’s office, there is a safe visitation and custody exchange center for domestic violence survivors. Officers and other staff help residents fill out protective orders, pick them up for court, and go to their homes to change the locks. They will also help victims find car seats, diapers, outdoor lighting, and other essentials when they’re in crisis. Melissa Williams, who works at Haven, a local domestic violence shelter and support center, says when victims know that a caring person will answer the phone, they are much more likely to call for help when they need it.
Earlier this month, I was talking to Martinez on the phone when she had to put it down so she could field a 911 call. Her voice was steady and warm. “OK, let’s get you safe. Is he coming back? Do you need medical attention? Nothing’s going to happen that you don’t want. The baby is 1? OK, why don’t you go ahead and pack a bag. You don’t have to explain. You love him, but you want him to be a better person.”
Martinez and Webre have also worked to enforce a 2018 law making it a state crime for a person prohibited from having a gun to try to buy one. They wrote to the licensed gun dealers in the parish—more than 40—and explained that they are now required to call local police if anyone fails a background check. She also made little cards for them to post by the register, so that anyone working checkout can easily see the procedure to follow. So far, her office has arrested three people accused of “lie and try,” or trying to buy a gun when they are prohibited, and she has warrants for two more sitting on her desk.
Martinez broke up with the boyfriend who brought her to Lafourche. She has since remarried, and now uses the last name Martinez-Jordan. The little girls who rode into town in her back seat are now both deputies in Lafourche. Martinez-Jordan says it’s hard to know how many lives her reforms have saved. No one can know which of the more than 400 guns her office has collected might have shot or killed an innocent person. But she still sees the woman she found with her baby when she was a rookie. That baby, at age 13, contacted Martinez-Jordan to tell her he was writing about her for a school project about heroes.
Louisiana’s domestic violence murder rate is still one of the highest in the nation, but experts believe that will change as police implement the new laws. Just last month, Martinez-Jordan and her deputies arrested a man accused of trying to rape his wife. The man told a judge he had two guns, but when they went to his house to collect them, they found 22. They took them all away, along with a truckload of ammunition. “I’m pretty sure she feels safer now,” Martinez said.
The cases she works are often grim, but her own life has taught her that they are never hopeless. “Life is going to dig a hole and put you in it,” she said. “You have to decide whether you are going to build yourself a wall that holds you in, or a staircase to get out.”