As a gun violence prevention activist, it remains a mystery to me why we can’t do more to stop the endless cycle of gut-wrenching tragedy, followed by an outpouring of public sympathy, and yet still little to no progress made in the fight against senseless gun violence.
Sure, I realize that Congress is controlled by Republicans, and the gun manufacturers’ lobby (known as the National Rifle Association or “NRA”) spends vast sums of money to ensure that those Republicans kill any bill that has to do with gun violence prevention, no matter how reasonable and logical a law it may be. And I am painfully aware that we now have a president who was specifically endorsed by the NRA. Nevertheless, we are faced with some inconvenient truths when it comes to the often fatal role that guns play in cases of domestic abuse, even in a country like ours where gun rights too often seem to be valued well above human rights and public safety. To cite just a few of the alarming statistics and findings of studies I came across while researching this piece (click on links for sources):
Domestic violence results in at least 2,000 deaths each year in the United States and more than half of the these “intimate partner” homicides are carried out with a gun.
Nearly 75 percent of the victims in domestic violence shootings are the current wives or girlfriends of the men who killed them.
Approximately 58 percent of recent mass shooting incidents involved the killing of a current or former partner or family member. Of such shootings, 81 percent of the victims were women and children.
70 percent of women killed by their partners had been abused by that same person prior to their deaths.
When a gun is present in a domestic violence situation, it increases the risk of homicide for women by a whopping 500 percent.
Women who own a gun die by firearm homicide at twice the rate of women who do not. (In other words, the presence of guns in the home actually make women less safe.)
In many cases, domestic abusers use guns to threaten and terrorize their victims into staying in the abusive relationship, even in instances where they don’t end up pulling the trigger.
Multiple studies show that when abusers are permitted to keep their guns even after a protective or restraining order is issued against them, the abuser all too often ends up using those firearms against their victim.
When you stop to consider the specific actual tragedies that make up those statistics (such as the San Bernardino teacher recently shot to death by her estranged husband in a classroom filled with special needs children, two of whom were caught in the crossfire), it’s even more heartbreaking—and frustrating. Surely this is an area where we can find common ground and make some real headway through public policy and legislation? Who would want a domestic abuser to possess a gun when we know that this is a recipe for disaster, impacting not just the direct victim of abuse but also collateral victims, such as her children, fellow workers, law enforcement officers, and bystanders?
It turns out that pertinent legislation has been enacted at the state and federal level, though inconsistent and riddled with loopholes. In 2014 alone, six states—as geographically, politically, and culturally diverse as Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Washington, and Wisconsin—enacted laws to protect domestic violence victims, indicating that this is indeed an area of potential bipartisanship.
Unfortunately, setbacks and disappointing failures persist in this seemingly black-and-white realm despite valiant efforts by advocates, activists, and lawmakers. Earlier this month, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez (R) vetoed a proposed law requiring abusers subject to protective orders to surrender their guns for the duration of the order—a bill that managed to be passed by both the state house and senate—claiming that domestic violence is a “complex” matter. Complex? How is it possible to look at these grim statistics and study findings and then veto a bill carefully crafted to reduce future tragedy due to domestic violence? Likewise, the Maryland General Assembly recently failed to pass a bill that simply required courts to enforce a law already on the books—informing convicted domestic abusers that they must give up possession of their guns and providing a process for doing so. But what good is a law on the books when nobody even bothers to enforce it? Simply put, we can and must do better.
The Current Federal Law Regarding Domestic Violence and Gun Possession
Congress has made strides over the years to prohibit domestic abusers from buying or possessing guns. Specifically, abusers convicted of domestic violence felonies or misdemeanors, as well as abusers subject to certain domestic violence restraining orders, are precluded from purchasing or owning firearms. While this sounds fairly comprehensive on paper (and the Supreme Court has clarified that by domestic “violence,” Congress intended to include even a battery under state law), the law has gaping loopholes that even the least savvy of domestic abusers can slip through to buy or continue to possess a gun. While not an exhaustive list, here are some of the problems with current federal law:
Federal law fails to include abusers who merely dated their victims (also known as the “boyfriend loophole”). However, at least as many people in dating relationships are murdered by their partners as by those in marriages.
Federal law fails to include people who have been convicted of misdemeanor stalking of their victims or are subject to restraining orders.
The loophole that enables many criminals to purchase guns without a background check through private, unlicensed sales—either over the internet or at a gun show—likewise enables a convicted domestic abuser to evade a background check that would reveal his inability to own or purchase a gun. (To gain a grasp of the magnitude of this problem, since its inception, the national background check system (”NICS”) has stopped over 2.2 million gun sales to prohibited purchasers, including hundreds of thousands of domestic abusers.)
The law has no requirement nor process for how to go about dispossessing an abuser of his firearms.
The law fails to cover an especially dangerous time for an abuser to possess a gun—following the issuance of a temporary restraining order (”TRO”) against the abuser. Another issue with this loophole is that it can take weeks following issuance of a TRO for the court to hold a hearing and make a determination on a permanent protective order. During this entire period of time, an abuser can hold onto his firearms and use them to commit homicide.
The Current Patchwork of State Laws Regarding Domestic Violence and Gun Possession
Some states have stepped up to fill in at least some of these gaps in the federal law. Other states don’t even have laws similar to the federal law, which presents obvious enforcement issues. State laws that restrict access by domestic abusers to firearms literally save lives; such laws are associated with a 19 percent reduction in the risk of intimate partner homicides. Nevertheless, the NRA routinely lobbies against such life-saving measures.
A growing number of states have closed the “boyfriend loophole,” but still only about half prohibit gun possession by at least some abusive dating partners subject to protective orders. Florida and Minnesota have enacted laws prohibiting gun possession by stalkers in certain cases.
Only ten states mandate that domestic violence misdemeanants relinquish their guns, despite research showing that cities in states with such laws had 25 percent fewer domestic gun homicides compared to cities in states without relinquishment laws.
Even when a state has a relinquishment law, the specific requirements vary widely, judges don’t necessarily order abusers to relinquish their guns, and law enforcement officers often either don’t know that they have the authority to seize weapons (or know what to do with guns once they are seized). North Dakota very recently amended its law to provide additional guidance to judges and law enforcement upon entering a judgment on a protective order, however the law stops short of mandating surrender. Only about a third of states require, or at least authorize, law enforcement to remove firearms at the scene of a domestic violence incident.
Last October, Connecticut became one of only 16 states to close the TRO loophole. The result of legislative compromise, Connecticut’s law requires state courts to hold a hearing on the domestic violence TRO in seven days, and once it expires, the abuser gets his guns back within five days (assuming the hearing doesn’t end in imposition of a protective order).
Unfortunately, states are not always thorough in their reporting of disqualified abusers to the appropriate databases. In such cases, the abuser will not show up during a NICS background check and will be able to purchase a gun. Only about four states—New York, Illinois, Minnesota, and Massachusettes—have laws to facilitate such reporting.
What Can Be Done To Close The Loopholes and Help Protect Victims of Domestic Abuse?
There is tremendous public support for laws barring abusers or stalkers from owning a gun, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into legislation, which is why it’s so important for everyone reading this piece to contact their own lawmakers—in Congress and in their state legislatures—and demand that they take action to help keep their constituents and victims of domestic abuse safer.
As is clear from the current landscape, there is much room for improvement regardless of where you live (although residents of a handful of states such as Connecticut, Illinois, California, New York, Hawaii, and Minnesota can take heart that their state laws in the area of domestic violence and gun possession are already among the most comprehensive and toughest in the country). Click here to see a handy guide of your own state’s laws. Also, examples of common sense solutions that states can use to make their domestic abuse victims safer (and advocates and activists can use to push state lawmakers for reforms) can be found in this helpful report by Americans for Responsible Solutions and Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
The author is one of the earliest members of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America—a grassroots gun violence prevention advocacy and activist group that was formed in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting in 2012. To join a local chapter of Moms Demand Action or learn more about the group’s mission, click here.