The Use of Firearms in Domestic Violence
The presence of firearms significantly changes the circumstances in a domestic violence situation. Many argue that guns are not a problem, but statistics clearly show that guns make domestic violence deadly (Law Center To Prevent Gun Violence, 2014). While some might argue that it is a people problem, not a gun problem statistics show that when a gun is involved, interpersonal violence (IPV) is 12 times more likely to end in death than if only physical force or another type of weapon were used.
It is true that mental illness and other maladaptive behaviors are present in domestic abusers, but adding a gun to the situation magnifies it (Vigdor & Mercy, 2006). A gun makes it easy to end the life of a domestic violence victim. A gun allows an abuser to act “quickly, violently, and irrevocably” turning an argument into a life and death situation with little to no possibility for the abuser to change his mind (Pavlovitz, 2015, Futures without Violence, n.d.).
The People Behind the Statistics
Domestic violence is at its very core the result of at least one person feeling desperation or depression (Brandl et al., 2007). When that person has access to a gun, many other options are taken away. The use of a gun is final and many times fatal.
Thoughts become actions and in no case is this truer than with domestic violence. Stark (2007) states that the belief that “the universal masculine” is the standard for what is “rational, reasonable, and right in relationships” allows for the belief that women are “irrational, emotional, and immoral” (p. 281).
The three R’s hold tremendous power over the victim; they cause the perpetrator to believe that he is justified in any actions he takes to rectify the imaginary situation he has created in his mind without any consideration of how those actions affect the victim and keep the victim from seeing the situation objectively. The prism of the three R’s distorts both the victim and perpetrators view of the situation and justifies even the most lethal of behavior (Brandl et al., 2007).
The Legal System: A Help and Hindrance
While in contrast to the past, the legal system in the United States has improved in the way it handles domestic violence and the use of firearms; loopholes, inconsistencies, and opposition from gun rights advocates has left a gaping hole where many victims are still lost. In 1994 the Violence against Women Act (VAWA) was passed earmarking funding for state and local authorities to create a coordinated community response, creating federal domestic violence offences, and establishing the Office on Violence Against Women (Latz, n.d.). Despite the introduction of domestic violence gun control laws, there has been very little research on their effectiveness (Vigdor & Mercy, 2006).
There are currently three types of laws that are related to domestic abuse and the possession or purchase of firearms, these include: part of the Violent Crime Control Act, The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), and the Lautenberg Amendment Legislation has been passed on both the state and federal level designed to reduce domestic violence (Vigdor & Mercy, 2006).
The Lautenberg Amendment
On September 30, 1996 the Gun Control Act of 1968 was amended to make the shipment, possession, transportation, transfer or receipt of firearms or ammunition by or to anyone convicted of misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence a felony (Vigdor & Mercy, 2006). Unfortunately not all domestic violence misdemeanors fall under the definition outlined by the Lautenberg Amendment thus it frequently falls short in preventing those who commit acts of domestic violence from having access to guns (Vigdor & Mercy, 2006). Furthermore Vigdor and Mercy report that when a domestic violence incident occurs there is currently no federal law regarding the confiscation of firearms at the scene. If a man must wait to be convicted of domestic violence before police can act to remove access to firearms, the laws are impotent in their ability to protect domestic violence victims.
While restraining order laws restricting gun ownership has been shown to reduce femicide by 7% research has shown little to no effect for the confiscation of guns following a domestic violence misdemeanor (Vigdor & Mercy, 2006). This is likely due to the loopholes left by the Lautenberg Amendment and other domestic violence gun control laws. Thankfully many states have begun to make additional laws to further control those involved in domestic violence from possessing or purchasing guns.
Currently 18 states allow officers to confiscate guns in domestic violence incidents, though there is great variation in which firearms and when they can be confiscated (Vigdor & Mercy, 2006). For example, Vigdor and Mercy report that 11 of the 18 states require that police officers confiscate weapons at the scene, 7 allow the officer to use his or her discretion, and 3 allow for all other firearms at the scene to be confiscated.
There is also great variation among the state laws regarding whether or not a search can be conducted or if the firearms had to be in plain view (Vigdor & Mercy, 2006). It is also unclear as to the frequency of confiscation of firearms and ammunition in relation to the arrest of the domestic abuser. There appears to be circumstances when an arrest was not made, but weapons were confiscated, and others where arrests were made and only some guns were confiscated. The lack of conformity creates a serious safety risk for the victim and the community at large.
Another limitation of the federal laws is that they do not include dating partners unless they were living together or have children even though it is well documented that people in dating relationships are also at risk for IPV (Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 2014). The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence also reports that sibling, parent, and other family relationships are left out of the federal protection laws.
What is mind boggling is that despite most states having laws restricting gun ownership, purchase, or transfer, many have inadequate systems to determine who should be restricted. There are some states that do not keep domestic violence related data centralized so individual counties and cities may be unaware of a perpetrators actions in another area (Vigdor & Mercy, 2006). Without the proper information, it is virtually impossible for law enforcement and gun dealers to take appropriate action.
The lack of available domestic violence protective orders and misdemeanors through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) prevents even licensed dealers from knowing whether or not a person is prohibited from purchasing firearms. In fact, only 15% of rejected firearms transfers were related to federal domestic violence laws (Violence Policy Center, 2010).
Despite federal laws designed to restrict offender’s access to guns, loopholes are rampant. The most significant loopholes lie in background checks. Not only is there a lack of a requirement by federal law to perform background checks, there is a private sale loophole that allows domestic violence offenders to obtain firearms from unlicensed private sellers (Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 2014).
The Internet and high volume private sellers have made it easy for those who should be prohibited due to domestic violence laws to possess a gun. The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence (2014) reports that in 2013 over 67,000 firearms were available from unlicensed sellers. This correlates with other data showing that only 13.4% of those convicted of gun offenses got their firearms from a licensed dealer. Even more frightening is the fact that the City of New York found that 62% of online firearm dealers agreed to complete the sale even after being told that the buyer could not pass a background check (Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 2014).
There could not be a stronger case for the restriction on gun ownership for those involved in domestic violence situations, yet loopholes and inconsistency in the laws continue to fail in preventing guns from being in the wrong hands. The cost to those involved as well as society is high, with some paying with their very lives. It is a tragedy when something as simple as a reporting system is underutilized and results in the death of domestic violence victims. While efforts continue to intervene in the lives of victims and perpetrators alike, it is vital that gun control laws and enforcement become more federally centralized. It is not enough for one state to do things well some of the time because in those other times people die.
Brandl, B., Dyer, C. B., Heisler, C. J., Otto, J. M., Stiegal, L. A., & Thomas, R. W. (2007). Elder Abuse Detection and Intervention. New York, New York: Springer Publishing Company, LLC.
Futures Without Violence. (n.d.). The facts on women, children, and gun violence. Retrieved from http://www.futureswithoutviolence.org/userfiles/Gun%20Fact%20Sheet_FINAL%2003%2003%2013.pdf
Latz, K. (n.d.). Family violence: A legal history [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from https://shsu.blackboard.com/bbcswebdav/pid-1650030-dt-content-rid-7971292_1/xid-7971292_1
Law Center To Prevent Gun Violence. (2014, May). Domestic violence and firearms policy summary. Retrieved from http://smartgunlaws.org/domestic-violence-firearms-policy-summary/
Pavlovitz, J. (2015). Why gun violence is a heart problem. Retrieved from http://johnpavlovitz.com/2015/08/27/why-gun-violence-is-a-heart-problem/
Vigdor, E. R., & Mercy, J. A. (2006). Do laws restricting access to firearms by domestic violence offenders prevent intimate partner homicide? Evaluation Review, 30(3), 313-346. doi:10.1177/0193841X06287307
Violence Policy Center. (2012). When men murder women: An analysis of 2010 homicide data. Retrieved from http://www.vpc.org/studies/wmmw2012.pdf