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A man and a woman were shot to death in a Helena apartment on the morning of Oct. 13, and the man's wife now is facing two counts of deliberate homicide. The deaths of 48-year-old Joseph Andrew Gable and 50-year-old Sunday Cooley Bennett occurred two days after Gable filed for divorce from Michelle Coller Gable. Last month, he tried to get an order of protection from her - but his request was denied by District Judge Dorothy McCarter.

There is no way of knowing, now, whether that protection order might have made any difference in the tragic events that subsequently unfolded. One thing's for certain, however: it couldn't have hurt.

And as Montana joins the nation in recognizing October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month, it also provides a timely reminder of the effectiveness of protective orders in domestic violence disputes.

This month, the Missoulian is running a five-part series of guest columns highlighting different aspects of the issues surrounding domestic violence. Look for the fourth column in the series on tomorrow's Opinion page.

Statistics kept by the Victim Services office of the Montana Department of Justice show that hundreds of incidents of domestic violence in Montana are reported to law enforcement each year. Presumably, many more cases go unreported. In fact, the department estimates that there are about five victims for every 1,000 Montanans each year. In Missoula County alone, there were 461 reports of domestic abuse in 2009, the last year for which crime data is currently available.

But what good do protection orders, mere pieces of paper, do to prevent domestic violence? According to the National Institute of Justice, they have been shown to discourage abuse by certain kinds of perpetrators. The institute cites a Seattle study that found that women who received protection orders were "less likely to be physically abused than women without them." And in a Texas study, physical abuse decreased measurably over a two-year period - "from 68 percent to 23 percent after the orders were obtained, if victims maintained the order."

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Protective orders are useful in less tangible ways as well. For one, they make it easier for law enforcement to track and follow up on cases of abuse. It's often easier for police to make an arrest in a case where someone has clearly violated an order of protection, than it is to arrive at the scene where violence has taken place and try to sort out who is the abuser and who is the victim.

Victims of domestic abuse, male or female, are often too frightened of their abusers to go to law enforcement for help. When they do, they should know that the law is on their side and will protect them while any other domestic or legal issues are sorted out.

That is why it is so important that judges err on the side of caution when considering whether to issue protection orders. Now and in the future, we urge Montana's judges to do just that.

EDITORIAL BOARD: Interim Publisher Jim McGowan, Editor Sherry Devlin, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen

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