The first-ever hearing on the connection between gun policy and domestic violence in the Senate Judiciary Committee occurred today as members of a witness panel discussed ways to close the loopholes in current federal law. Passing additional legislation in the Violence against Women Act (VAWA) to protect women from gun violence was also a topic.
One of those testifying in favor of a comprehensive background check for all who purchase guns was Elvin Daniel, a member of the National Rifle Association. His sister was shot and killed by her estranged husband in 2012. At the hearing, he said he is “convinced” that her killer deliberately bought a gun from an unlicensed firearms dealer.
As shootings rampage across the country, Congress has remained at a standstill. After the December 2012 massacre inside Sandy Hook Elementary School. Some states have passed new reform measures that tighten gun restrictions, while others have enacted laws that weaken regulations.
Gabby Giffords, a former representative whose Congressional career was stopped by a shooting in 2011, has launched a leadership network to educate state and federal lawmakers on the need for solutions that protect women from gun violence. The group plans a major advocacy push this year near the 20th anniversary of VAWA on Sept. 13.
There are those who won’t believe that guns are a serious problem for women. Elizabeth Hovde, conservative columnist for The Oregonian, wrote, “It’s rare that we are victims because we are women.” In glossing over any discrimination against women, including her representation of the Hobby Lobby case, she determined that women just like men, that bad things happen to all people. Hovde said that the California mass murdered Elliott Rodger was not targeting women, but his statement shows a different picture: “If I can’t have them, no one will.”
A recent study, “Women under the Gun,” shows how lax gun laws, both federal and state, allow women to be murdered at an alarming rate—6,410 from 2001 to 2012–more deaths than from the Iraq and Afghan wars combined. Women’s experiences of violence in this country are unique from those of men: Women knew their attackers in 65 percent of the cases, compared to the 35 percent of murders in which men knew their assailants. About 48 women are shot to death by intimate partners each month.
Two states passed bills in May to stop people convicted of domestic violence from owning or buying firearms. Minnesota’s bill expands handgun restrictions for convicted abusers to rifles and shotguns. It also includes restrictions for temporary restraining orders. Louisiana has passed a similar bill. With earlier laws from Wisconsin and Washington, the success rate covers four states. In Minnesota the bill got the vote of a GOP representative who regularly carries a gun, and Washington’s bill passed unanimously. Information about all state laws to protect women from fatal gun violence is available here.
A 2010 study, published in the journal Injury Prevention, showed that such laws have reduced intimate partner homicides by 19 percent. The victims in all five incidents leading up to the law were all women who had obtained protective orders within the month in which they were killed. More than 30 people subject to active restraining orders were convicted of assaults involving guns in a three-year period.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Mazie Hirono (D-HI) are trying to close loopholes through their proposed Protecting Domestic Violence and Stalking Victims Act. Federal law defines domestic as people who have lived together, had a child together, or been married. Only ten states cover “dating partners” who are responsible for over half the murders of women in domestic violence. In an unusual defense of same-sex relationships, the NRA argued against such a law because it might work against “partners of the same sex.”
The proposed bill also prevents convicted misdemeanor stalkers from obtaining weapons, which the NRA also opposes. Its position is that stalking behaviors “do not necessarily include violent or even threatening behavior.” One in five convicted stalkers 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. Another provision of the bill would expand the definition of “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” to include the threat of violence.
Weak enforcement of laws sometimes comes from the failure of prosecutors to demand that those banned from owning firearms surrender their guns. States also don’t fully comply with reporting those banned from gun ownership. Laws are also weak in many states. About 40 percent of all gun sales are done privately because many states do not require universal background checks for these sales. In states that require background checks for all handgun sales, however, nearly 40 percent fewer women are killed by their intimate partners than in other states.
Although the NRA is completely opposed to saving women’s lives through closing the gun purchasing loopholes, the vast majority of women—81 percent—support extending the definition of “abusers” to include stalkers and dating partners. Overwhelming support for such a measure exists among 77 percent of both Republican and independent women.
Statistics show how often stalking leads to violent crimes and murder. One study of female murder victims in 10 cities found that three-fourths of women murdered and 85 percent of women who survived a murder attempt by a current or former intimate partner had been stalked in the previous year. There are nearly 12,000 convicted stalkers in the United States who can legally buy a gun.
Sarah Engle is just one example of how women are targeted for killing and why the country needs restrictions on gun ownership. [ Left: Engle in an appearance with Gabby Giffords who was shot in Arizona in January 2011.]Almost six years ago, her ex-boyfriend broke into her mother’s house where he shot and killed the woman. After sexually and physically assaulting Sarah, he shot her in the face and left her for dead. Her experience highlights the way that women are the focus of killing because of gender.
Kentucky is one state where legislators are as clueless about guns and domestic violence as Elizabeth Hovde is. With the most lax gun restrictions for DV abusers in the nation and the greatest percentage of intimate-partner homicides by guns, the state has passed a law making it easier for battered women to obtain concealed-carry permits without changing laws for DV perpetrators. The victims don’t need any firearms training.
The presence of a firearm in a DV situation increases the risk of homicide by 500 percent for women, according to research from Mayors against Illegal Guns. The Atlantic noted, “Not a single study to date has shown that the risk of any crime including burglary, robbery, home invasion, or spousal abuse against a female is decreased through gun ownership.”
Domestic abusers and stalkers should not have guns. People who engage in this behavior escalate conflict that frequently results in tragedy. The gaps in federal law need to be closed—now.