A New Report Shows How Hard It Is to Keep Guns Away from Domestic Abusers
Mass shootings aren't always public—and often target women and children behind closed doors.
In the broader scheme of American's gun problems, domestic violence might not seem like the most urgent piece of the puzzle. After all, the United States bore witness to hundreds of public mass shootings last year, including high-profile terrorist attacks in Charleston and San Bernardino. But a new report from two gun control groups serves as a reminder that domestic violence actually accounts for a huge share of gun deaths in America. These incidents are also some of the easiest to predict and prevent, with abusers leaving a trail of 911 calls and other hints that trouble might be coming. And while policymakers have crafted laws in hopes of keep guns out of the hands of abusers, the report suggests they're riddled with loopholes and bedeviled by poor enforcement.
The authors—the Consortium for Risk-Based Firearm Policy and Prosecutors Against Gun Violence—offer a prescription for how to plug up those gaps. The report serves as a solid goal post for states with lax laws and those struggling to enforce decent ones. But even the folks behind the recommendations concede they won't tackle domestic gun violence alone, which speaks to the ongoing and existential challenge posed by the patchwork of weak gun laws in America.
After all, domestic gun violence is "a multi-pronged problem," according to Hollye Dexter, an activist with Women Against Gun Violence. "We've got to come at it from a lot of different directions."
Domestic gun violence often involves a man killing his current or former partner or family, and almost never makes the news like random public shootings. But these tragedies take a toll: Of 2,707 female homicide victims in 2013, nearly half were related to or involved with the killer. Going by recent FBI data, over half of such "partner-related" murders would have been shootings. According to the gun control advocacy group Every Town for Gun Safety, domestic incidents also made up a disproportionate number—57 percent—of mass shootings under the FBI definition (at least four people shot dead in one incident) between 2009 and 2015. Eighty-one percent of the victims in those shootings were women and children.
Rather than inevitable bloodlust, this violence seems linked to guns, the presence of which increases the chance that a partner will be killed in a domestic violence event by about 500 percent. Domestic gun violence also wounds many more, and it keeps more still in a perpetual state of fear as firearms are used for terror and control even when not fired.
Thankfully, it's rare for domestic gun violence to explode in a vacuum. In up to 70 percent of cases, it follows a series of threats or less deadly violence, all of which offer points of contact with authorities before things get deadly. In one study, at least half of all women killed by their partners had been in touch with the criminal justice system at least once over the previous year. Recognizing this, Congress has enacted laws that allow states to prevent firearms purchases and even seize guns under certain domestic violence protection orders. When officials do remove guns from those deemed dangerous enough to merit a protection order, risk of intimate partner homicides dropped in at least one study by 19 percent.
Unfortunately, many states choose not to make removing guns from violent abusers mandatory, or fail to identify the guns, serve the order, or execute successful retrievals. Federal law also limits the right to remove guns to those with protective orders issued by (ex)spouses, people the abuser lived with, or those they share children with, and does not apply to temporary protection orders issued after abuse is identified but before a full hearing can be carried out for the protection of a victim.
The problem being, that "is the most important time to remove a gun," according to Dexter. "When people are in the situation to need a temporary restraining order, that means they feel like they're in immediate danger, and something's probably going to go down at any minute."
A number of states have fixed these loopholes locally, but many allow them to persist.
The report suggests states adopt gun removals in permanent and temporary protective orders, and where gun removals are optional, at least get key legal stakeholders to pledge to use them. The authors also lay out a comprehensive outline for how to best identify, remove, and (if need be) return abusers' guns. "To do removal and retrieval properly, you need to develop a comprehensive system," says Josh Horwitz, the executive director of the Education Fund to Stop Gun Violence and a co-founder of the CRBFP. "You can say, 'We have removal in the state,' but unless you work with the stakeholders to develop processes... these things won't happen by themselves."
But even if states followed the recommendations of the report to a tee, they wouldn't be able to remove guns from all dangerous abusers. That's because there are a host of parallel loopholes in the definition of just who qualifies for domestic violence protections. The report only addresses in passing that domestic violence protective orders typically don't extend to non-cohabiting dating partners or stalkers, who are more likely to commit domestic violence than, say, a spouse. (There are other types of protective orders for these individuals, but they often don't carry tough restrictions.). The report also skits the issue of people who have trouble navigating the court system to successfully secure an official form of protection despite facing a clear risk of violent abuse.
Perhaps most importantly, weak background check data and exemptions for private or gun show sales make it exceedingly easy for someone prohibited from owning a gun under a protective order (or any other restriction like a felony or violent misdemeanor) to get one anyway. This at least partially explains why states with stronger background checks see 46 percent fewer women shot to death in domestic violence incidents than more lax states on average.
Horwitz sees creating a strong universal background check standard as key to bolstering gun removal and reducing domestic violence risks, a policy he believes many Americans support. Lindsay Nichols, an attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, adds that Congress is considering legislation to extend gun restrictions to stalkers, dating partners, and other loophole classes, which could go a long way in strengthening the benefits of domestic violence firearm removals. She also points to a recent California law that allows wider categories of people to get courts to restrict gun access to those who pose a plausible threat, which could help nip potential disasters in the bud.
There's almost always going to be a way for abusive people to do harm in America. But as the report's authors argue, effective policy can put up barriers that block the worst of that violence without unduly violating the constitutional right to bare arms. Frustratingly, no single volley of gun policies exists in a void, making the success of any one law or set of best practices in part contingent on the airtight implementation of different sets of ideas. But detailed proposals like these show that despite the tricky politics and enforcement hurdles, America is capable of giving victims of domestic violence access to better legal protection—and a chance to escape the peril of their partner's gun.
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