You Wouldn't Believe How Easily a Domestic Abuser Can Get a Gun

Human Rights

In his killing rampage, Elliot Rodger targeted women. He isn't the only man in America to do so. National crime statistics suggest that on any given day, three women die at the hands of their intimate partners.

The Isla Vista killings have re-ignited federal and state efforts to make sure that those who threaten those closest to them don't have access to a gun. A wealth of grim statistics speak volumes about why this is needed.

Of those murdered by their partners, guns are involved 50 percent of the time. Each month, 46 women are estimated be murdered by a gun by an intimate partner. Compared to households without a gun, those with a firearm see an eight-fold increase in the risk of intimate partner homicide. If there is a history of domestic violence in that relationship, this risk is 20 times higher compared to homes without guns, according to the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. A 2004 study based on interviews with women in domestic violence shelters found that over two-thirds had said that they had been threatened by their partner with a gun. 

A generation ago, in the 1990s, Congress recognized the dark relationship between the presence of guns and domestic violence deaths. It passed a series of legislative reforms, through the Violence Against Women Act and amending the Gun Control Act, to try to keep guns out of the hands of abusive partners. In response to Elliott Rodger’s killing spree in Isla Vista, California, there is a now a new push to re-invigorate state and national efforts to update those laws and close known loopholes that can harm women.

Currently, federal law bars those that have a domestic violence restraining order against them, or who have been convicted of domestic violence, from owning a gun. In some ways, these court-ordered restrictions have been successful. According to the Center for American Progress, nearly 150,000 domestic abusers have been barred from purchasing a gun. A 2009 study found that because fewer guns are in these hands, intimate partner homicides have dropped by 19 percent.

But there are serious loopholes. While the law bars those convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor from owning or purchasing a gun, only domestic partners are affected; a category that is defined as people who have lived together, had a child together, or been married. Dating partners are not included, despite the fact that these relationships are where nearly half of intimate partner homicides now occur.

Moreover, only those facing long-term court orders, and who have had a hearing, are blocked from gun ownership. That loophole is the result of lobbying by the National Rifle Association. Bending to NRA pressure, Congress did not ban those facing emergency or temporary court orders from owning guns. What’s more, individuals convicted of stalking, or facing restraining orders because of stalking, are not included from the prohibition. That’s despite the fact that one in five convicted stalkers will use weapons to threaten or harm their victims, and nine out of 10 attempted murders of women involve at least one case of stalking before the incident.

Enforcement is also weak. Of those that are banned from owning firearms, few actually surrender their guns. That’s primarily because prosecutors rarely require this to happen, and notably few states have taken additional steps to ensure that perpetrators hand over their guns when they are convicted or face a court order. That reality is despite widespread public support for stronger measures. A 2013 poll found that 80 percent supported judges forcing those convicted of domestic violence or facing a restraining order to surrender their guns.

Still, there has been some progress by gun-control proponents at the state level. Recognizing these flaws, since 2008, 30 mostly blue states have taken steps to tighten domestic violence and gun restrictions.

There are federal efforts as well, which have been revived after the Isla Vista killings. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Mazie Hirono (D-HI) have co-sponsored the Protecting Domestic Violence and Stalking Victims Act. It closes  the current loopholes in several ways by: expanding the definition of domestic partner to include dating partners; expanding the definition of "misdemeanor crime of domestic violence" to include the threat of violence; and including a conviction of stalking, or having a long-term restraining orders for stalking, as qualifying for the gun ban. It does not, however, include emergency or temporary restraining orders, as another bill in the House does

Klobuchar and Hirono's proposed legislation has yet to be heard in committee, which is the very start of the long legislative process. But Arkadi Gerney, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, who has written extensively on the link between domestic violence and guns and reform efforts, says that it should start moving through the process this summer and possibly face a full Senate vote by the end of the year. Brigit Helgen, a spokesperson for Klobuchar, says the Isla Vista shootings has created a new impetus for the bill.

In some ways, the Isla Vista killings are not an obvious entryway to greater discussions about domestic violence and guns. Despite Rodger’s litany of terrifying YouTube rants against women, he did not have a history of domestic violence or stalking—at least as defined by the police and courts. But the shootings have prompted a resurgence of anger from women and their allies about misogyny generally, because Rodger’s vitriol was filled with many commonly heard rants, attitudes and attacks daily experienced by women.

The storm of women-led protests has been remarkable and may revive the national gun control debate. Writing at, Rebecca Solnit notes that the massacre, which has prompted the viral #YesAllWomen hashtag, not only raises concern about gun control laws generally, but about men's violence towards women specifically. She quotes Jennifer Pozner, who in 2010, in response to a man killing his wife and shooting six other women, wrote:

"In all of these cases, gender-based violence lies at the heart of these crimes—and leaving this motivating factor uninvestigated not only deprives the public of the full, accurate picture of the events at hand, but leaves us without the analysis and context needed to understand the violence, recognize warning signs, and take steps to prevent similar massacres in the future."

Other women writers, like Amanda Hess at Slate, connected these obvious dots. "Rodger was not a domestic abuser, he was a mentally ill young man who had better access to firearms than he did sufficient mental care,” she wrote. “But his stated motivation behind targeting both male and female victims—'If I can’t have them, no one will'—echoes the attitudes of the perpetrators of domestic violence."

A resurgence of legislative efforts after a massacre is not a new phenomenon. "Every time there's a mass shooting, people turn their attention to gaps in the law," says Lindsey Zwicker, staff attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. "The Isla Vista shooting [brought] to light the issue of gender-based violence and guns."

For example, after Adam Lanza killed 26 people in Newtown, Connecticut, gun control advocates pushed strongly for universal background checks, even though, as the Center for America Progress notes, "background checks were only tangentially related to the shooting." 

Whether anger over Isla Vista will prompt legal reform is unclear. Today’s Congress is not the same as in the 1990s, where bipartisan consensus could override the NRA’s objections. Post-Newtown efforts, which centered around requiring universal background check for all gun buyers, which the NRA opposes, have fallen flat in Congress. In contrast, the White House has issued many executive orders to try to beef enforcement and federal research into gun violence.

Domestic violence and gun safety advocates have noted that universal background checks are an important part of protecting women in abusive relationships, given that those facing federal bans can simply buy guns through private sales where background checks are not required. Approximately 40 percent of all gun sales are done privately. In states where background checks are required for every handgun sale, Mayors Against Illegal Guns estimates that nearly 40 percent fewer women are shot to death by their intimate partners than in states without universal background checks.

Even when background checks do apply, people may slip through the cracks. Because states don’t thoroughly report those banned from gun ownership, or don’t do so in a timely manner, the FBI database is notoriously incomplete. In a small step towards fixing the problem, the House passed a measure last week that increases funding to states to enhance reporting efforts.

But while federal legislation on universal mandatory background checks remains elusive, those efforts are seen as more sweeping and contentious than fixing the loopholes on domestic violence and gun laws, according to experts like Gerney. He is hopeful that the Klobuchar bill will have support.

"I think it has a very good chance of moving forward," he says, pointing to the fact that when restrictions on gun ownership for domestic violence perpetrators were first passed in the mid-1990s, they received strong bipartisan support—despite opposition by the NRA.

Gerney also points to more recent successful bi-partisan efforts at the state level. When Minnesota closed key loopholes in domestic violence laws earlier this year, the measure received bipartisan support—even from a Republican representative who regularly carries a handgun. A similar bill in Washington state passed unanimously. "There are very few people who want to protect the rights of domestic abusers," Gerney says.

Since Isla Vista, groups like Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense in America, Everytown for Gun Safety, Credo Action, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and Americans for Responsible Solutions have all come out in support of the effort. Gabrielle Giffords was recently in Washington, D.C., to lobby around the bill.

The NRA has been notably quiet on the national effort, although in April the Huffington Post noted that the group "opposes efforts to broaden the definition of domestic violence to include related crimes, like stalking." According to the Washington Post, after Isla Vista, the NRA "sent members letters and e-mails telling them they are resolved to fight any gun-control legislation that may arise." 

What happens next will be watched closely. After months of lobbying against the Washington state efforts, the NRA silently supported the legislation in exchange for a few concessions. The NRA has also given "tactic approval" for similar efforts in Louisiana, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

Activists like Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, hopes the NRA will come around to supporting national efforts to keep guns out of domestic abuser’s hands. "Hopefully [the NRA will] recognize that the overwhelming majority of women in this country–not to mention 90 percent of Americans–support common-sense gun laws proven to save lives," she said.

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