During a year punctuated by mass gun violence, the National Domestic Violence Hotline recorded a growing number of survivors seeking counsel for abusive situations in which firearms played a part.
Between 2016 and 2017, counselors at the hotline fielded 74 percent more calls related to gun violence, according to the group's latest impact report, released on Thursday. Katie Ray-Jones, the CEO of the hotline, deemed it a "sharp increase" that calls attention to the "many ways in which abuse plays out in a relationship where domestic violence is present."
More than half of women whose deaths are caused by gun violence die because of intimate partners who've turned guns on them, according to Everytown for Gun Safety. This stomach-turning statistic is why activists have been demanding for decades that states close the "boyfriend loophole," a gap in the law that allows people convicted of domestic abuse to retain their right to own guns as long as they weren't married to their victim. The Lautenberg Amendment, a 1996 law placing restrictions on domestic abusers' Second Amendment rights, only applies to current or former spouses, parents or guardians.
Advocates say keeping guns out of the hands of abusive partners of any kind — not just spouses — nationwide would be a huge step toward curbing the murder of women.
"Research suggests that these domestic violence firearm restrictions, when they are in place at the state level, are associated with a reduction in intimate partner homicides," April Zeoli, an associate professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University, told Broadly in November. "It looks like this domestic violence restraining order firearm restriction may save lives. If we apply it to more people, then again, these are groups that we know commit intimate partner homicide, then we might save more lives."
In the absence of any federal law to close the gap, some states have taken steps to doing so themselves. In March, Oregon joined 23 states in passing legislation to eliminate the "boyfriend loophole," making it the first gun control law passed in the wake of the Parkland shooting. Under the law, domestic abusers need not ever have been married to, lived with, or had children with their victims to have their Second Amendment rights revoked.
The link between domestic violence and gun violence gained national attention in recent months when news broke that Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz had reportedly abused his ex-girlfriend before killing 17 students at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February.
He's not alone: Everytown has found that some 54 percent of mass shooters fit a similar profile, having committed domestic violence before going on to deadly shooting sprees. Pulse nightclub shooter Omar Mateen and Planned Parenthood shooter Robert Lewis Dear are also among that large group of domestic abusers turned mass shooters.
"As more and more media cover mass shootings where shooters have domestic violence and/or dating abuse in their backgrounds, we learn that access to guns by abusers often turns deadly for their targets and those caught in the crossfire," Ray-Jones tells Broadly in an email. "Women see threads of their own stories in these mass shootings and stories of murder-suicides and realize that 'it could be me.'”
In addition to the increase in calls from survivors of abuse involving firearms, the National Domestic Violence Hotline also noted a "modest increase" in the number of immigrant survivors seeking support. Ray-Jones says it's difficult to interpret the 13 percent spike, which might be much greater were it not for what she termed a "heightened fear about detention and deportation" preventing undocumented people from contacting authorities about abuse.
All told, counselors at the hotline answered 323,356 phone calls, chats, and texts in 2017, though they were unable to respond to a staggering 98,159 of them due to a lack of resources.
Representatives on both sides of the aisle spoke at a congressional panel on Thursday to emphasize the need for the services the hotline provides, and the work that needs to be done to prevent domestic abuse.
“These are not partisan issues," Republican Senator John Cornyn said Thursday. "These are issues that we try to work together on to help people who need help,."