Articles Posted in Family Law in the News

The pandemic is affecting the desire for a divorce, the ability to obtain a divorce, and the issues that need to be resolved – in many different ways. A recent article in D Magazine analyzed the many different ways the pandemic is changing divorce in America.

Divorces in Texas are still being filed and resolved during the pandemic. Mediators and collaborators are still working to settle cases. It takes more time to obtain hearing dates in Texas as criminal trials have priority, and safety precautions need to be taken before cases can be heard. Many cases are being heard virtually instead of in-person.

The Texas Supreme Court states that current possession orders in divorce cases should be followed. Lawyers are being asked to keep the status quo as much as possible.

The laws on divorce, property division, child custody, alimony, and child supports haven’t changed due to the pandemic – but the needs of spouses, parents, and children have changed dramatically. A lot of the need for modifications of existing orders and the new requests for divorce depend a lot on the financial ability of Texans to weather the storm and the comfort levels of each spouse.

Courts are generally hesitant to change existing orders if the pandemic is likely to end within a year.

Some of the ways the pandemic is directly affecting family law issues are:

  • Grounds for divorce. One example of a practical change is that living apart for three years, one of the grounds for divorce, is more difficult because people are hesitant to move due to finances and the need to interact with movers and other people – to change locations.
  • Child support. It’s harder to enforce child support payments by holding parents who don’t pay in contempt. Contempt means time in jail, and jails are having some of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks.
  • Child custody/conservatorship. The parent with primary conservatorship is being required to make more decisions than usual.

The Pros and Cons of Virtual Divorces

Practically, most divorce hearings and negotiations are being handled virtually. Zoom is the primary technical medium.

In Texas, according to a Texas family lawyer, “It’s not uncommon now for me to have a three-day trial or several hearings in one day all on Zoom.” With Zoom, lawyers and clients don’t need to wait their turn to be heard. Mediators and judges have been able to adapt reasonably well.

Other lawyers appreciate how well Zoom works – but still think face-to-face hearings are better. In-person, the closeness and stress of a hearing can help forge settlements and help confront spouses who aren’t credible. Virtual trials can make it difficult to see the people testifying for or against a client and to ask them credibility questions and cross-examine them. With Zoom, you can’t see if a client is being coached through text messages or in some other technical way.

Some aspects of remote divorce proceedings may continue even after the pandemic because remote communications help cut down on legal and court costs.

How the COVID-19 Health Crisis is Affecting the Resolution of Divorce Issues – Such as Child Custody, and Child Support

The pandemic is forcing more decisions to be made about child custody and support. Deciding when to divorce and how to divide property often can generally wait longer because they don’t affect life on a daily basis.

Some of the Texas conservatorship issues that are affected by COVID-19 include:

Child custody and visitation. Many schedules do need to be modified – either amicably or through the court process. Modifications are necessary because children are staying home more (during school hours and after school hours). Some of the pros and cons of raising children during the pandemic are:

  1. Parents are finding it challenging to obtain daycare services during the pandemic.
  2. It simply isn’t as easy for the parents to exchange their children due to safety concerns.
  3. Many parents need to stay home to monitor their child’s remote learning.
  4. On the plus side, many parents are getting closer to their children because they’re spending so much time with them.

Child support. Some parents have lost their jobs due to the pandemic crisis. Losing a job is a proper reason for seeking a modification of a child support order.

Some couples are fighting more because of the pandemic for different reasons:

  1. Sometimes being in the same home 24/7 makes it hard to find escape valves for releasing tensions.
  2. Spouses may discover that the other parent isn’t willing to take care of the children.
  3. Spouses may discover that the husband or wife can’t handle stress well.
  4. For some spouses, the close quarters only makes clear that the marriage isn’t working.
  5. Different parents may have different ideas on their children’s education and social activities during the pandemic.
  6. Marriage counseling is continuing online.

How Lawyers are Trying to Help Spouses and Parents During the Divorce

Lawyers are trying to help couples with marital difficulties by clarifying what their lives will look like during and after a divorce – so they can better decide whether to work through the pandemic issues or seek a divorce. Family lawyer help spouses and parents by explaining:

  • How the divorce process works;
  • What issues need to be resolved;
  • How the resolution process works;

Some of the mechanisms family lawyers are using during the pandemic are:

  • Informal settlements;
  • Encouraging more flexibility;
  • Reducing the number of exchanges of children;
  • Collaborative divorces (which use a team approach with financial and mental health professionals), are working well during the pandemic – because the core idea behind the collaboration is to work out solutions instead of focusing on confrontation. Mediation is also a valuable divorce resolution tool.

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Now more than ever, today’s romantics are meeting online. Online dating blew up as soon as the internet hit the mainstream—the first online dating site,, went live as early as 1995. Now, more 40 million Americans are regularly on dating apps. But how is this figure shaping trends in dating, marriage, and divorce, if at all?

Do online dating apps encourage serial dating? Do they make it easier to cheat in a relationship? And, perhaps the biggest itch in people’s curiosity: How does online dating affect marriages and, therefore, divorce?

The research is in, and it says nothing you would expect—mostly.

A paper titled, “The Strength of Absent Ties: Social Integration via Online Dating” looks into the links between falling divorce rates alongside the rise of online dating.

That’s right, divorce rates are actually falling. They have been since the 1990s, which, as you would recall, was the time that saw the advent of online dating. According to a 2016 report by Time, separations in the United States went from 17.6 divorces for every 1,000 married women in 2014, to 16.9 in 2015. It’s a small drop, but this statistical trend is showing no sign of stopping as, just last year, the divorce rate dropped further to nearly its lowest point in 40 years.

At this point, it’s easy to disregard the link between online dating and falling divorce rates as a baseless correlation. But the paper’s findings actually support the findings of other studies, which show that married couples who met online are slightly more satisfied with their marriages than those that first met offline.

There could be a number of reasons for this, one being that dating apps are connecting us with people we otherwise likely would have never encountered, maybe even considered.

The rise of online dating and social media has effectively opened up a new world of dating possibilities, overcoming barriers such as time and distance in ways never before. Online dating has widened the selection of potential mates unlike ever before. Today, relationships are no longer limited to friends, friends of friends, and so on. “The one” may have never been among our circles, and dating apps are bridging that gap.

Dating apps even have hypothetical benefits. The researchers behind the study have been making simulations of society, adding and removing certain factors and seeing what would happen to relationships as a result. The results? Online dating allowed for more interracial connections, increasing the chances of “complete racial integration,” and ultimately resulting in a more harmonious society.

Although these findings are far from conclusive, they do line up nicely with existing hypotheses of online dating being the main driver of change in the dynamics of relationships.
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Divorce proceedings rarely go without a hitch. Besides the obvious toll it can take on your emotions, you also have to deal with the impact a separation can have on your assets and finances. The house, the car, the appliances, the couch—these are just some of the many things divorcing couples have to go over during property division.

But what about pets? While many Americans treat their dogs, cats, and other domestic animals as de facto members of the family, the law sees them as property. Any colorful “pet custody” battles you hear about on the media are simply part of property division proceedings.

However, that could all change, at least in Alaska, where divorce statutes now require the court to consider “the well-being of the animal,” explicitly empowering judges to assign joint custody of pets.

According to Kathy Hessler, director of the Animal Law Clinic at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, animals’ place in society and families have evolved, so much so that many courts around the country struggle with the idea of pets simply being property. More and more divorcing couples are also asking courts to decide on custody, visitation, and even pet support—statutes normally associated with child custody battles.

“The relationship with the animal is what is important in the family law context, so the property law analysis tends to be a poor fit for resolving disputes, and in fact, many of the property settlement agreements are continuously disputed, making more work for the courts,” Hessler said.

For some people, pets should stay with the kids, while others believe animals should belong with the person that purchased them or served as their primary caretaker, which can be complicated if both spouses shared the cost of buying the pet.

The amendment comes after receiving bipartisan support in Alaska, largely thanks to its co-sponsors, Republican Liz Vazquez, and the late Democrat Max Gruenberg. Vazquez, who failed to get reelected in November, insisted that pets are family members, with Alaskans loving them as much as they love their family and friends. The late Gruenberg, on the other hand, was motivated to act on the matter after handling a divorce involving an entire sled dog team in Juneau.

The Alaska amendment sets an interesting precedent that other states could refer to when trying to pass similar legislation. The bill allows courts to include pets in protective orders against domestic violence, and requires owners to cover the cost of shelter for pets seized after neglect or cruelty.

Hessler hopes that the amendment helps to ignite a trend that the rest of the country will follow. “It makes more sense to address these issues at the legislative level to allow for public input and create rules that can be applied evenly to all citizens,” she said.

In Texas, decisions about the fate of domestic animals after a divorce ultimately fall to protocols around property division. With emotions running high, an animal companion can be especially helpful for managing your feelings.
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In a move sure to make San Francisco more attractive to job searchers and employees with families, San Francisco approved a new ordinance guaranteeing fully paid family leave for all workers with new children, making it the first city in the entire United States to implement such a policy.

The new ordinance mandates employers with at least 20 staff members to pay employees with new children 45% of their monthly salaries for the next 6 months, beginning in January 2018. Meanwhile, California’s Paid Family Leave (PFL) insurance program, which took effect in 2004, will cover the remaining 55% of new parents’ salaries.

Answer to Lack of Family Paid Leave Benefits

Scott Wiener, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors representing District 8, and one of the ordinance’s co-sponsors, said the new policy was a response to the dire need of employees for paid family leave. “It is surprising and troubling that for a very significant portion of people in our country, people can have or adopt a baby today and have to go back to work tomorrow,” he said.

Indeed, only 13% of all employees in the United States are given paid family leave by their employers. Moreover, the United States is the only developed nation with no paid family leave requirements for new parents. Still, there are some bright spots. California, along with New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island has implemented some semblance of paid family leave program for new parents.

Wiener hopes the day will come when the federal government steps up and pushes legislation mandating paid family leave at the national level. “For now we’ll have to do what we’ve always done and that’s lead,” he said.

Small Business Owners Voice Concerns

Naturally, small businesses are hard pressed to offer paid family leave to new parents due to budget constraints. In light of these concerns, Supervisor Aaron Peskin proposed implementing the new ordinance in the following stages:

  • First, to organizations with 50 or more employees in January 1, 2017
  • Second, to organizations with 35 employees on July 1, 2017
  • Third, to organizations with at least 20 workers on January 1, 2018

According to Eric Mar, District 1 Supervisor, implementing the law in stages all the way to 2018 makes sense as its gives small to medium enterprises (SMEs) more time to prepare and resolve any management issues they might have.

What Happens if Employers Deny Paid Family Leave?

Employees who are new parents and have been denied parental leave are encouraged to file a complaint with San Francisco’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement. Wiener says that if the city’s labor agency can’t force a resolution, employees can take legal action through the courts.

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Welcome to the 21st century, Florida. After 148 years, common law partners, domestic partners, and other unwed couples living together in Florida no longer have to live in fear of breaking the law.

On April 6, Wednesday, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill officially repealing a state law prohibiting cohabitation by unmarried partners. The repeal was one of twenty bills the governor signed into law.

Although the repeal is largely symbolic in nature—the antiquated law was rarely, if ever, enforced in modern times—Florida lawmakers still pushed for it in light of the dramatic changes in living arrangements in recent times.

Dangers to Young and Old Couples

According to democratic Florida State Rep. Richard Stark, –one of the repeal effort’s co-sponsors–, both seniors and young couples are at risk of being prosecuted by a law that dates back to the Reconstruction period. Stark, who represents communities of seniors, added that many elderly Floridians are technically unmarried but living together for various reasons, some having to do with finances, others related to Social Security.

“I don’t think that they want to be considered to be violating the law,” he said.

Census data shows there are around 438,000 unmarried male-female couples among 7.3 million households in Florida.

None of the Government’s Business

Democratic Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda of Tallahassee gave another angle to the repeal, saying, “The government has no business looking under the sheets as to why two people are living together; that is not the government’s business.”

Although the bill met unanimous approval in the Florida House, 5 Republican state senators voted “no” to the repeal.

Florida Law Since 1868

Laws prohibiting co-habitation by unwed couples were once commonplace throughout the United States in the late 19th century until the mid 20th century, when attitudes on informal marriages changed. In Florida, offenders could face a second-degree misdemeanor resulting in 60 days of jail time, and/or a fine of $500.

The newly signed law abolishes the statute prohibiting unwed men and women from “engaging in open behavior that is gross lewdness and lascivious.”

Only Michigan and Mississippi Left

Michigan and Mississippi are the only remaining states that still have co-habitation laws in their books. The issue raised its head in 2005, when a Michigan appeals court withheld visitation rights from a divorced father after the court learned he allowed his girlfriend to sleep at his home when his children were around.

Most recently, Mississippi passed House Bill 1523, an act widely considered as an anti-LGBT law that allegedly protects citizens who see marriage as “the union of one man and one woman,” and believe sexual relations should be “properly reserved to such a marriage.”

For what it’s worth, Florida’s co-habitation law technically never applied to same-sex couples.

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Conservative Fox News Channel host Bill O’Reilly was dealt a crushing blow in a bitter custody battle, officially losing custody of his teenage children after facing accusations of domestic abuse against his wife, from no less than his own daughter.

The New York Appellate Division ruled unanimously that O’Reilly’s two children, ages 17 and 13, were better offing living full-time with their mother, Maureen McPhilmy, who was married to the Fox news commentator for 15 years, divorcing him in 2010. The court had issued a ruling on the case last week, releasing a 1400-word opinion that used anonymous names, only for the press to figure out the identities behind the parties involved.

Children Prefer to be with Their Mother

The ruling shows that O’Reilly’s children had “clearly stated preferences” to live with their mother, taking into account their “age and maturity” and the “home environment provided” by McPhilmy.

The appellate ruling affirms the initial 2015 decision by the Nassau County Supreme Court, which O’Reilly had appealed to block its enforcement. O’Reilly and his ex-wife will share legal custody in material concerns for the children, including, but not limited to, medical care, education, and religious and spiritual supervision.

After the original ruling in 2015, the media obtained court transcripts of O’Reilly’s 17-year-old daughter, where she testified to seeing her father “choking her mom” and dragging “her down some stairs.” She added she was afraid of O’Reilly’s temper, and called him an “adulterer” and absentee father who was never around the house to be with them.

Not the First of O’Reilly’s Controversial Actions

In a 2015 interview with Politico, O’Reilly was quick to deny the domestic abuse accusations, saying that, “all allegations against [him] in these circumstances are 100% false,” and that he was “going to respect the court-mandated confidentiality put in place to protect my children and will not comment any further.”

O’Reilly and McPhilmy had separated in 2010, officially divorcing a year later in September. According to several reports, O’Reilly has been seen trying to undermine his wife on more than a few occasions, even demanding an internal investigation by the Nassau County Police Department against a police officer his ex-wife is currently dating.

O’Reilly also allegedly told his local church that McPhilmy was still receiving communion despite being a divorcee, for which she was reprimanded—the Catholic Church frowns upon divorce. The same church also told McPhilmy to stop telling the children that her second marriage was recognized and respected by God—something reportedly urged by O’Reilly.

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If your marriage woes have come to a head and separation seems to be the only option you have left, consider the state you’re living in before filing for divorce. Depending on the state you’re from, the cost of a divorce in the United States can range anywhere between $15,000 and $20,000, mostly because of varying divorce lawyers’ fees. Divorce laws also vary between states, and couples who live in states where lawyers charge less and divorces take less time to resolve have a much smoother experience than those don’t. Conversely, couples who live in states with complicated divorce laws and lawyers who charge higher fees have no choice but to pay thousands to dissolve their marriages.

GOBankingRates, a financial advice website, recently released the results of a survey showing the best and worst states to file a divorce. For its criteria, the survey included filing fees, lawyers’ fees, and divorce laws across all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia.

The Most Expensive States for a Divorce

California takes the top spot on GOBankingRates’ list of most expensive cities to file a divorce. At $435, California has the highest divorce filing fee in the United States, while the average hourly rate of $402 for a divorce lawyer is the country’s third highest. On average, divorces take at least 6 months to resolve.

Coming in at second place is New Jersey, where a divorce will set you back $300 in filing fees and $365 an hour for your divorce lawyer. New Jersey, however, stands out for the average length of divorce proceedings, where they normally run at least 12 months to complete. Perhaps it’s why this state has the lowest marriage rates in the country, with only 5.4 married couples in every 1,000 residents, according to data from the CDC.

The Cheapest States for a Divorce

Maine offers one of the lowest divorce fees in the country. At $120, it has the eight-lowest filing cost, as well as the fifth-lowest average rate, at $207, for hourly lawyers’ fees in the United States. Separating couples can also breathe a sigh of relief thanks to the state’s 60-day average processing time for divorces.

Although filing fees are a bit higher in Texas, Texas does allow for divorces to be finalized after a 60-day waiting period. Making it possible to complete divorces pretty quickly as well.

South Dakota is the third most affordable state for divorces, with the filing fee of $95 and hourly divorce lawyer fee of $262 well below the national average. Divorces in South Dakota also resolve quickly, adding up to cost-effective separations.

The Award for Cheapest State Goes to

Filing for a divorce in Wyoming will only set you back $70 in some court districts, a mere third of the $215 national average and the lowest in the entire country. Wyoming’s divorce lawyers also charge an average of $187 an hour, which is 36% lower than the U.S. average of $294.

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For Christmas, Nicki Bidlack received the best present she could ever hope for: a piece of paper designating her, along with the late Sara Clow, as the mother and legal guardian of her two-year old son.

Bidlack, a resident of Ogden, Utah, was in tears after receiving the amended birth certificate, saying it’s what Clow would have wanted. She had apparently wanted her son to bear not just her last name, but that of Bidlack’s as well.

Clow had died from injuries sustained after a severe motor accident on the night of September 13, 2014, on Interstate 15 near Willard.

Groundbreaking Court Ruling

On December 4, 2015, 2nd District Judge Ernest Jones issued a ruling that recognized the couple’s 8-year relationship as a common-law marriage, thereby making her the stepmother of Bidlack’s 2-year-old son. According to lawyer, Christopher Wharton, the decision is believed to be the first of its kind for gay couples in Utah.

The ruling now enables Bidlack to get the benefits for the son she is now raising on her own. Because Bidlack and Clow had never married, —they could legally only do so after the Supreme Court ruling in 2013 recognizing same-sex marriage in the United States—, when she passed away, her partner and child could not access her death benefits and estate, even if Clow was the biological mother of her son.

Bidlack expressed frustration over how their son had been denied benefits any other child would have automatically received.

Finding Legal Assistance

This problem prompted her to consult the services of Christopher Wharton, a family lawyer based in Utah and a longtime advocate of gay rights, who had enough reason to believe that Bladick’s situation could be connected with the denial of a 14th Amendment right.

Fortunately, both the law and timing were on their side. Utah is one of only eight states in the U.S. to recognize common-law marriages, defined as unions between individuals who have yet to obtain a marriage license or seek marriage rites through some kind of ceremony. At the time, however, the common-law provision, like all of Utah’s other marriage statutes, applied only to relationships between men and women.

That all changed after a historical 2013 Federal Court decision, which found state laws prohibiting gay marriage were unconstitutional. Wharton correctly believed the decision would also apply to common-law unions. A 2014 Utah Supreme Court ruling would further bolster his claim, as it stated that common-law status could be granted posthumously after a claim was raised within a year.

In February 2015, Wharton filed a petition asking the state to recognize Bidlack and Clow’s common-law marriage, basing his claim on mutual dependency, cohabitation, and the couple’s treatment of each other as lawfully wedded spouse.

Judge Ernest Jones’ favorable ruling comes at a time when Utah’s LGBT community continues to fight for respect and recognition.

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Couples in New Hampshire that believe the “irreconcilable differences” causing their separation can somehow be made reconcilable, thereby allowing them to get un-divorced, may want to think twice. The state’s Supreme Court recently sustained a lower court decision that refused to vacate the divorce of a New Castle couple who had previously been married for 24 years.

Thomas McCarron and ex-wife, Terrie Harmon, appealed to the court that their divorce decree was a mistake as they had reconciled and are once more a couple. Unfortunately, the justices, in a unanimous decision issued in December 2, 2015, ruled that given their circumstances, the law only allows them to grant divorces, and not reverse them.

Laws for Retracting Divorces

Enough couples change their mind about their divorces that many states have legislation to deal with the issue.

Courts in Kentucky, Maryland, Arkansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, and Illinois can vacate divorces, provided they are retracted within a certain period after being first granted, or under certain instances at the request of couples.

Other states, however—like New York, South Dakota, and New Hampshire—, state they have no authority to undo the divorce proceedings. Joshua Gordon, defense attorney for the lower court’s ruling, said that allowing McCarron and Harmon to reverse their divorce could set a precedent that undermines the finality of all divorces granted in the state.

He argues that divorce proceedings are a unique and often turbulent area of litigation. He adds that for many divorced couples, knowing that their divorce is permanent goes a long way in finding peace of mind.


Fortunately, not all is lost for Harmon and McCarron, as they always have the option of remarrying.

The couple had been married since 1989 and was officially divorced in July 2014. They filed a joint motion to retract their divorce in March that same year. The couple has yet to return phone calls or issue a statement on what they plan to do next.

Exemptions to the Law

New Hampshire law actually allows for divorces to be retracted when factors like fraud, misfortune, accidents, or errors come into play. Gordon, however, said that these conditions were not found in the Harmon-McCarron divorce, and that any financial consequences claimed by the couple were of their own doing.

Gordon believes that the couple wants to vacate their divorce decree for sentimental reasons and partially because of business interests that would be more complicated in a divorce and remarry than simply undoing a divorce.

If there are any lessons that can be taken from this story, it’s that couples should think hard when planning on ending their marriage, never taking divorce proceedings lightly.

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After being shot by her ex-husband last year, a Georgia lawyer is trying to convince state legislators to pass a law that effectively stops spouses from purchasing firearms while going through the divorce process.

April Ross, a bright, up-and-coming prosecutor for Fulton County, Georgia, was sitting in a car with her former colleague, Levon Hailey, on the morning of April 25, 2014, when her estranged husband, Tranard McConnell, fired upon them several times. He would go on to commit suicide hours after the incident.

Ross was left paralyzed after the attack, only two days after filing for divorce to end her three years of marriage with McConnell.

Memories of the Shooting

According to Ross, she can’t quite recall her ex-husband firing a gun at her, or the sensation of being hit with three bullets: one in the jaw, another in her right arm, and the last in her back, which caused a spinal injury that left her paralyzed from the chest down. The six surgeries that occurred within the span of a week were also a blur.

It was a Friday morning when Ross and her friend Hailey were en route to the Clayton County courthouse in her blue Honda. Ross had planned to have her hair done after dropping off Hailey at his house, but after wrapping up their conversation, she noticed movement on the passenger-side window and recognized her husband’s figure. Her memories beyond that are foggy.

Status of the Bill

Ross would eventually learn that her husband had bought the guns and ammunition just hours before shooting her and her friend. Today, the attorney is in talks with state legislators to push a bill that would prevent anyone going through a divorce from buying a firearm.

The bill has already made it to the Georgia Senate. If passed into law, the legislation would require individuals going through a divorce to first seek a judge’s permission to purchase a gun.

The Georgia lawyer knows the bill would only address one aspect of domestic violence, failing to eliminate every worst-case scenario possible for spouses going through a divorce. Still, she hopes it will reduce instances where someone can hurt their spouse when ending a relationship.

Opposition from Gun Rights Advocates

Not surprisingly, the bill has received criticism from staunch opponents of gun control. A gun rights group called Georgia Carry recently issued a statement, saying that they oppose any bill that “strips citizens of their constitutional rights (referring to the Second Amendment) without due process.” The group goes on to add that while emotions tend to be at their extreme during divorce proceedings, stripping any disarmed person from their right to bear arms is not the proper way to address the issue.

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