Robert Lee Harrison Jr. was charming when Tara Currin first met him at an Oklahoma City bar, but things turned dangerous when he started using drugs about a year into their relationship.
Harrison, 50, became verbally abusive and accused Currin, 53, of hiding cameras around her apartment, she said.
She knew she had to break up with Harrison when he crept up behind her with a gun and shot into the wall at her apartment in Warr Acres.
“I wasn’t scared of Robert,” she said. “I was afraid of him when he had a gun.”
Harrison had three prior felony convictions, a misdemeanor conviction for domestic abuse and two active protective orders against him that should have kept him from possessing guns under state and federal laws. He also had two pending criminal charges against him for possessing a firearm after a prior felony conviction and was out of jail on bond.
But none of these things kept Harrison from hiding in the parking garage with a gun at the Oklahoma City hospital where Currin worked and shooting her eight times on March 11, 2022.
If Currin had lived in one of 21 states with a red flag law, a judge could have ordered police to seize Harrison’s guns. But Oklahoma lawmakers passed the nation’s first and only anti-red flag law in 2020. The law bans the state or any county or city from enacting a red flag law or accepting any grants to support red flag legislation.
Domestic violence advocates say Oklahoma’s permissive gun laws give abusers easy access to weapons. Guns accounted for 70% of domestic violence-related fatalities in Oklahoma in 2021, according to the most recent state numbers. The Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit organization that advocates for gun control has ranked Oklahoma in its top 10 states for women murdered by men in 15 out of the past 25 years. Oklahoma is now ranked number two in the nation for women murdered by men.
Kim Garrett-Funk, founder of the Oklahoma City-based nonprofit Palomar, which provides services to victims of domestic violence, said she saw the worst cases in her career in the last three years and attributed it to the state’s firearm laws such as not requiring a permit to carry and the Anti-Red Flag Act. She said simultaneously, as the laws changed, the state also lacked affordable housing, childcare, and resources for victims, and some abusers get triggered by protective orders and escalate to severe violence.
“I think part of it goes back to access to firearms. There’s a direct correlation. If you look back at our laws, opening up access and an increase in firearm-related homicides,” Funk said.
A protective order didn’t stop an attack with a gun
The day after Valentine’s Day in 2022, Currin went to the Oklahoma County courthouse and took out an emergency protective order against Harrison.
Currin checked the box marked “victim of domestic abuse/violence” and wrote she was afraid Harrison would retaliate against her for filing the protective order. She wrote that she wanted Harrison to get mental health and substance use treatment.
Currin changed her phone number and the locks at her apartment. She told sheriff’s deputies to serve Harrison with the protective order at his brother’s house, but they couldn’t find him. Currin said Harrison called her mother’s phone and said he knew sheriff’s deputies were trying to find him to serve the protective order. She told Harrison he needed to get help for his drug use.
Federal law bars anyone with an active protective order against them from possessing guns. When Oklahoma County deputies serve an order, they tell the person to turn over any weapons they have to law enforcement, but can’t make anyone comply or forcibly seize guns, said Aaron Brillbeck, a spokesperson for the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office.
Currin said she doesn’t know how Harrison got access to guns, but he always managed to have one.
One day after an Oklahoma County judge finalized Currin’s emergency protective order, Harrison showed up at her workplace with a gun.
Harrison hid in the parking garage of Integris Baptist Medical Center where he followed Currin to her car at the end of the work day.
“He punched me right in the face. And he said, ‘Scoot over, I’ll shoot you,'” Currin recalled.
He continued punching her, but Currin was able to open the passenger-side door of the car and escape. Harrison chased Currin and cornered her by the elevators on the fourth floor. He raised his gun and pointed it at her. Currin grabbed the weapon, hoping to at least keep him from getting a fatal shot. Harrison shot Currin six times in the abdomen and twice in the thigh.
Harrison then fled the scene as Currin tried to crawl back into the hospital. She just wanted to survive and knew there were nurses two floors below. Currin climbed down a flight of stairs before losing consciousness.
Second Amendment advocates fight red flag laws
Firearms have been the leading cause of domestic violence homicides in Oklahoma since 1998, according to data from the Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board. The state panel operates under the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office and reviews deaths and makes policy recommendations to help protect victims.
The board can make recommendations to the legislature, said Leslie Berger, press secretary for the Office of the Oklahoma Attorney General. But it has not made any recommendations to change state gun laws in any of the available reports online which date back to 2002. A different organization produced the reports prior to 2010.
The board recommended in 2020 that law enforcement and the courts assess whether people convicted of domestic abuse and violating protective orders have firearms, but didn’t offer any specific changes to the law.
A growing number of states began adopting red flag laws after the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Before 2018, just five states had red flag laws.
The laws allow police and family members to seek a court order to temporarily remove guns from individuals who may pose a violent threat to themselves or others.
The U.S. Department of Justice issued model legislation in 2021 for states to follow that outlines a process allowing law enforcement to seize weapons with a court order.
But Second Amendment advocates have opposed efforts to prevent people from keeping guns as an infringement of the constitutional right to bear arms.
The United States Supreme Court is now weighing whether the federal law that bars people with active protective orders from possessing guns is constitutional. The case involves a Texas man who was criminally charged for possessing a gun while there was an active domestic violence protective order against him. Zackey Rahimi was involved in five separate shootings and threatened a woman with a gun before his arrest.
In 2020, Sen. Nathan Dahm, R-Broken Arrow, and Rep. Jay Steagall, R-Yukon, introduced the nation’s first anti-red flag law in the Oklahoma Legislature. The bill’s authors said during hearings at the Oklahoma Capitol they believe red flag laws violate the constitutional rights of gun owners.
“This isn’t solely about the Second Amendment. These red flag laws violate numerous provisions of the Bill of Rights. The right to face your accuser, the right to a fair trial, the right to be protected from unreasonable search and seizures,” Dahm said while presenting the bill at a Senate committee. “In fact, these red flag laws violate the majority of the Bill of Rights.”
Some lawmakers raised concerns about mass shootings and domestic violence cases when the bill was brought for a vote during a committee hearing in the House of Representatives.
“What is more important? A man’s right to a weapon, or a woman’s right to life, liberty, and happiness,” said Rep. Trish Ranson, D-Stillwater.
The bill passed with strong support from Republican lawmakers. Gov. Kevin Stitt, who signed the bill into law, did not respond to questions or interview requests.
The Frontier attempted to reach Dahm through phone calls, interview requests via email, and written questions through email, but he didn’t respond.
Steagall declined an interview request and did not respond to written questions.
Currin believes a red flag law could have prevented her attack. The court could have granted a search warrant for police to seize any weapons. Tara Tyler, executive director of the domestic violence support agency Survivor Resource Network in Ponca City, believes limiting abusers’ access to firearms could help save lives.
“There’s no question that unfettered, unrestricted gun access negatively impacts public safety,” she said. “And I say that as a gun owner.”
There is usually a pattern of escalating violence before most intimate partner homicides, said Sarah Schettler, a spokeswoman for the Norman Police Department.
“If those who have convictions early have firearms removed, lethal events may not be as likely to occur,” Schettler said.
A red flag law could be another tool to help law enforcement prevent homicides, Shettler said.
Representatives for the Tulsa and Edmond departments all declined to answer questions about the efficacy of red flag laws and the Oklahoma City Police Department didn’t have any information on the effect of the Anti-Red Flag Act.
Trying to recover after a protective order served too late
Police didn’t find Harrison until the day after he shot Currin, when his black Ford F-150 truck was spotted at an Oklahoma City apartment complex.
Harrison took off running into a wooded area, where a police officer chased him to a metal fence. Officers found ecstasy, marijuana, methamphetamine and other pills on Harrison. Police searched the apartment and found a gun in the master bedroom, but it’s unclear if it was the weapon used to shoot Currin. The department declined to comment on whether it was the gun used to shoot her.
After the shooting, Currin had to have surgery on her left leg to avoid having it amputated. She had physical therapy and home health services for three months and recently started physical therapy again.
Currin only started to feel pain from her injuries after the shock and adrenaline from the attack wore off. Doctors told her she was lucky to be alive.
Police didn’t serve Harrison with Currin’s protective order until March 15, 2022, four days after the shooting, when he was sitting in the Oklahoma County Detention Center.
Harrison continued to try to contact Currin. Six months after he shot her and left her bleeding out, he emailed her from the jail and asked to visit with her by video. Contacting Currin violated the protective order she still had against Harrison.
Federal authorities charged Harrison with illegal possession of ammunition for two spent rounds from a .45-caliber handgun that were found in the parking garage after the shooting. Harrison was prosecuted as part of Operation 922, an initiative of the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Oklahoma to crack down on gun violence by targeting repeat domestic abusers. Operation 922 has netted 284 convictions for breaking federal firearm laws since 2018. He was also charged with carjacking, kidnapping, and use and discharge of a firearm during a carjacking after he shot Currin.
Currin didn’t find out about Harrison’s previous history of domestic violence until his federal trial. Harrison was convicted of misdemeanor domestic abuse in 2010 and his ex-wife took out a protective order against him. Another woman Harrison dated filed a protective order in 2020 that was still in effect when Harrison met Currin.
The federal jury found Harrison guilty of all charges after a one-day trial in January and a judge sentenced him to life in federal prison in October. Harrison is appealing the federal case. Harrison still has more pending state charges related to the shooting that are scheduled for trial in March.
Currin still suffers from nerve damage, numbness, and pain. She also has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and participates in therapy programs at Palomar for domestic abuse survivors.
She left the job that she loved as a department assistant at Integris Baptist Medical Center after 22 years because it was a constant reminder of the attack.
Currin said something needs to change, and it starts with ensuring violent offenders can’t get guns.
“From my experience, having that access to a gun, knowing that this person is violent is the scariest thing for a woman,” Currin said.