Human Rights

10 Domestic Violence and Mass Shootings: Why Existing Laws Fail

State and federal lawmakers should take a closer look at the links between abuse and murder.

Photo Credit: a katz/Shutterstock

Days after 26 people were killed in Sutherland Springs, Texas, a gunman opened fire in the small town of Tehama, California, killing five and wounding ten, including students at a local elementary school.

There were few similarities between the two men. Devin Patrick Kelley was 26 years old at the time he attacked churchgoers in Sutherland Springs. He grew up 30 miles away and served in the Air Force. Kevin Janson Neal was 43 when he attacked his wife, neighbors, and a school full of children in California. Neal struggled with mental illness, according to his family and grew marijuana for a living.

Identifying the next mass shooter is difficult if not impossible to do. The most recent tragedies show how different two perpetrators can be. But the attributes that shooters do share should guide state and federal policymakers who want to protect citizens from the next mass shooting. Kelley and Neal both had a history of domestic abuse, and both died during the attack. These two facts should be used to inform laws that keep firearms out of the hands of potential shooters.

Survivors of domestic abuse know that abusers and guns are a lethal combination. The majority of intimate partner homicides in the United States are committed with firearms, and even if firearms are not used to kill, they are often used to threaten and keep victims from escaping a violent home.

Kelley and Neal had a history of domestic violence, indicating that mass shooters rarely kill at random. They often exhibit warning signs to family, friends, or co-workers before they seek out additional victims. Federal and state laws attempt to limit abusers’ access to guns, but the existing patchwork of regulations continues to allow domestic abusers access to firearms.

While federal regulations ban domestic abusers from purchasing firearms, states that adjudicate domestic violence have little incentive to regularly update the National Instant Background Check System (NICS) with information about known abusers, undermining the effectiveness of the system. Even if the NICS is up to date, not all gun sales require a background check on the purchaser. Finally, few states require abusers to give up guns they already own, meaning they may be prevented from buying new guns, but they may still have four or five in the house.

The cases of Kelly and Neal powerfully illustrate that these three dangerous loopholes require policymakers’ immediate attention.

The existing background check system is weak. When a perpetrator is convicted of a domestic violence crime or served with a restraining order, that information must be sent to the NICS, which contains data on individuals who should be prohibited from buying weapons. However, the incomplete NICS reporting by the military in Kelley’s case indicates that this process is flawed. There are few ways to check whether government officials that have information about criminal behavior actually send that information to NICS.

Current federal and Texas state law on background checks do not extend to guns sold online, at gun shows, or through private transfers. Today, only 12 statesrequire background checks on all gun purchases. Would-be abusers and mass shooters may be barred from buying guns by state and federal law but private, online, or gun-show sellers are allowed to provide customers with a firearm regardless of the customer’s legal history.

Moreover, abusers do not always give up firearms they already own. Federal and most state policies rely on the perpetrator to voluntarily surrender his or her firearms. This process clearly failed the victims of the Tehama shooting. Upon being served with a restraining order, Neal surrendered one firearm and said that he did not have others.

If a person does not admit to having a weapon, local law enforcement usually cannot or will not pursue a search warrant. California law tries to avoid this problem by automatically giving law enforcement the ability to execute a search warrant if a man refuses to turn in firearms he might claim he owns. However, if a man who lies about the number of guns he has, like Neal did, it renders the policy ineffective.

Finallythese policies are built on the idea that threat of punishment works as a deterrent to future crimes. However, many perpetrators of domestic homicide and mass shootings do not live to face punishment. In a Duke University/Sanford School of Public Policy study of all intimate partner homicides in North Carolina, my colleagues and I found that in the majority of homicides in which a man murdered his romantic partner with a gun the perpetrator also killed himself. The threat of prison would have no deterrent value: Kelley and Neal will never face prosecution for breaking federal and state regulation.

The path forward is clear. The national background check system needs to be stronger and the criminal justice system needs to focus on removing firearms from the possession of abusers instead of relying on laws that increase the penalty for future violations. If a person is served with a restraining order or convicted of a crime related to domestic violence, law enforcement should automatically seek a search warrant to search for firearms. The guns seized from abusers may well prevent the next mass shooting in the United States.

The politics of gun regulation in the United States has stopped lawmakers from addressing the threat firearms pose to Americans. But as the country has seen countless times, guns in the hands of dangerous individuals can have disastrous consequences that even a good guy with a gun cannot stop. Americans need more than thoughts and prayers. State and federal lawmakers should craft policies that proactively disarm individuals that pose a threat to their family and community.

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