Firearms and domestic violence are a lethal combination. About two thirds of intimate partner homicides in the U.S. are committed using guns, underscoring the fact that women face real and significant danger from guns in the hands of their intimate partners1.
According to one study of crime data from 1976-1987, more women were shot and killed by a husband or intimate partner than were murdered by strangers using firearms, knives, or any other means.2 Another study showed that when an abusive partner has access to firearms, a woman is 500 times more likely to be murdered by that abuser3. Her risk is highest immediately after leaving her abuser, a phenomenon known as separation violence. The act of separating is a direct challenge to an abuser’s sense of control and in response, the abuser may take extreme measures to reestablish control. In the most extreme case of IPV during this volatile time, the result is murder.
Some research indicates that interventions such as domestic violence restraining orders (DVRO) help women separate from their abusers, reducing the risk of IPV. Federal and state laws designed to prohibit restrained abusers from purchasing and possessing firearms can enhance the protective effects of a DVRO. However, even where such laws exist, ineffective implementation by the civil and criminal justice system, mean that survivors of domestic violence are at continued risk of death or serious injury.
The Federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act prohibits the purchase or possession of a firearm by persons convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence and those under certain domestic violence restraining orders4 (a restraining order is a court order that limits one person’s behaviors in order to protect another).
Similarly, twenty states (including California) and the District of Columbia bar persons who are subject to a domestic violence protective order from purchasing or possessing some or all firearms. State laws fall into two categories: 1) laws authorizing police to remove firearms when responding to a domestic violence complaint (“police gun removal laws”), and 2) laws authorizing courts to order guns removed from batterers through a protective order (“court-ordered removal laws”).
Many states exceed federal law by including a broader category of victims who may apply for a domestic violence protective order prohibiting firearms. Laws mandating the removal of firearms from abusers have substantial support from both the law enforcement community and the public, especially in those circumstances when a gun is displayed during a domestic violence incident5. Nevertheless, impediments exist that prevent full implementation – there are loopholes in legislation; lack of supporting legislation at the state level, and spotty implementation of laws by police and judges.
In California, an abuser (i.e., the ‘restrained party’) must surrender their firearms to a local law enforcement agency or sell them to a licensed dealer within 24 hours of the restraining order being served5.
Research by Vittes and Sorenson4 found that only 7.9% of victims of intimate partner homicide (1.8% of male victims and 9.5% of female victims) in California in 2004 were protected by a restraining order at the time they were killed. An additional 1.7% of female intimate partner homicide victims had an expired restraining order. A firearm was used to kill 48.1% of those without an active restraining order, 43.5% of those with an active restraining order, and 50.0% of those with an expired restraining order. Apparently at least some portion of restrained persons continued to have guns and to use them against their partners.
The ability of DVROs to prevent gun-related threats and assaults rests almost entirely in the implementation and enforcement of and compliance with the associated firearm purchase and possession prohibitions.
In a study recently published in Violence Against Women, Vittes et al6 found that most restraining order recipients in California wanted firearms to be removed from their abusers, and that doing so would increase their sense of safety. In the context of DVROs, judges can be key allies in post-separation. Unfortunately, most women in the study reported that judges neither inquired about the existence of firearms nor order their surrender. While certainly alarming, these findings reinforce previous studies showing that in California, judges often failed to require relinquishment when issuing restraining orders.
Further confounding the issue is that police officers often lack the legal authority to remove all firearms from restrained abusers. In some cases where victims reported that a restrained abuser was in possession of firearms and the abuser denies such claims, police officers often lacked the legal jurisdiction to conduct a search and seizure.
Is it any wonder that victims of domestic violence feel continually disempowered and scared?
Clearly, legislation is not enough. California has some of the most stringent gun laws in the nation, but a lack of political will, resource limitations, and a lack of awareness about the gravity of domestic violence prevent adequate implementation and enforcement of firearm restrictions related to domestic violence.
When an offender has easy access to guns or slips through the proverbial cracks in the legal system, there is nothing more dangerous for a victim. In a moment of rage or loss of control, a woman’s life can (and does) end in an instant.
We can do better than this… and we will.
Within the YWCA’s Legal Advocacy Program, we ensure that clients are well-informed about the firearm-related provision of protective orders and whether or not they been implemented, thus improving enforcement.
We will be stepping up our efforts to cultivate relationships with court officials to ensure that judges take every opportunity to question restrained parties about the presence or possession of firearms when issues of domestic violence are presented in court. In cases where a DVRO petitioner is unsure if the restrained party/defendant possesses firearms, the judge should require the restrained party – under oath – to submit a list of all firearms either in his direct possession or ownership, so that all can be relinquished by law enforcement. In cases where abusers claim to have “sold” firearms coincident at the time of domestic violence, judges should request supporting documentation proving a bon fide sale to a gun dealer (i.e., and not to a family member, friend, or acquaintance from whom the guns can be easily and quickly retrieved).
We are also working closely with the Monterey County Police Chiefs Association to identify actions that improve compliance and strike a balance between seizure, receipt, and storage of firearms from restrained abusers and the best use of limited resources. Also, increased monitoring of relevant firearms databases will ensure that abusers don’t escape the attention of the FBI and State law enforcement agencies.
Finally, the YWCA is increasing the number and scope of its domestic violence certification and outreach programs. Training is provided to members of the law enforcement, criminal justice, and advocacy agencies, as well as community agencies involved with domestic violence prevention and awareness. The training is geared to address the specific needs of small towns and rural areas, which are characteristic of Monterey County. In this way, the YWCA can directly address the lack of awareness regarding the seriousness of domestic violence with those on the proverbial front lines.
Although well-intentioned, research on the issue of firearms and the DVRO process suggests that there are significant gaps in enforcement from courts and law enforcement agencies. The result is often severe injury and even death for some women.
Firearm restrictions for known domestic violence abusers reduces violence and save lives – it’s that simple.
At the YWCA, we will do everything within our power to ensure that victims of domestic violence feel safe in our community, particularly during the volatile stage of separating from her abuser.
Cheryl M. McCormick, Ph.D.
YWCA Monterey County
1 U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Homicide Trends in the U.S., Intimate Homicide Victims by Weapon and Gender. Available at http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/homicide/tables/intweaptab.htm.
2Frattaroli S., 2009. Removing Guns from Domestic Violence Offenders: An Analysis of State Level Policies to Prevent Future Abuse. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.
3Campbell J.C., Webster D.W., and J. Koziol-McLain, 2003. Risk factors for femicide within physically abusive intimate relationships: results from a multi-site case control study. American Journal of Public Health; 93:1089-1097.
4 Vittes, K.A. and S.B. Sorenson, 2008. Keeping Guns Out of the Hands of Abusers: Handgun Purchases and Restraining Orders, American Journal of Public Health; 98(5).
5Sorenson, S.B., 2006. Taking Guns from Batterers: Public Support and Policy Implications. Evaluation Review, 30:361-373.
6Vittes, K.A., Webster, D.W., Frattaroli, Claire, B.E., and G.J. Wintemute, 2013. Removing Guns from Batterers: Finders From a Pilot Survey of Domestic Violence Restraining Order Recipients in California. Violence Against Women, 19(5):602-615.