The Deadly Link Between Guns and Domestic Violence

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Illustration by Kostya Vacuum via Flickr

In 2011, Deborah Wigg, a 39-year-old mother of two from Virginia Beach, Va., obtained a protective order against her husband after asserting that his abusive behavior had escalated. In her application, she indicated her husband possessed a 9-millimeter semiautomatic handgun.

A few months later, her husband broke into her home and shot her. She died of a single gunshot wound to the head.

The story was cited by Natalie Nanasi, an assistant professor at the Dedman School of Law at Southern Methodist University (SMU), in a study of the link between guns and domestic violence.

Among the key lessons, Nanasi wrote, was that Deborah Wigg’s death was preventable.

Guns and domestic violence have long been a deadly combination. One study cited in Nanasi’s paper claims that a woman is fatally shot by her intimate partner every 16 hours in the United States.

In her paper, published as SMU Dedman School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 416, Nanasi proposed a three-part strategy for protecting women by “disarming domestic abusers.”

The strategy comprises:

  • Strengthening existing or implementing countywide state legislation that prohibits individuals convicted of domestic abuse from owning firearms;
  • Establishing a viable firearm surrender program using proper protocols; and
  • Educating families and victims on legal routes they can take, if all else fails, to get guns out of an abuser’s possession.

Under existing state law in Virginia, the protective order Wiggs obtained against her husband made it unlawful for him to have the gun that he used to kill her; but, the laws are simply not being enforced, Nanasi wrote.

Abusers are rarely compelled to surrender their firearms, and even when they are issued a notice, no process is in place to ensure that they’ve relinquished their weapons.

Nanasi, who also serves as director of the Judge Elmo B. Hunter Legal Center for Victims of Crimes Against Women, quotes “Weapons in the Lives of Battered Women” a study published by the University of Pennsylvania, which suggests “that it is relatively common for an abusive partner to have access to a gun and for there to be a gun in the home where abuse is occurring.”

By federal statute, it is illegal for a person to possess a firearm while subject to a court order related to domestic violence. But there are many reasons for this law’s under-enforcement. Only 29 states have enacted detailed statutes that restrict firearm possession by domestic violence offenders.

Many potentially dangerous gun owners get away with possession after a court order is filed because there are “limited federal resources and a lack of coordination between federal and state law enforcement agencies’ when it comes to retrieving owned guns by abusers,” Nanasi wrote.

At the end of 2018, California Assembly Bill 3129 put a lifetime ban on gun ownership or possession for individuals convicted on or after Jan. 1, 2019, of a misdemeanor domestic violence offense or for battery on a spouse, cohabitant or person the defendant currently or previously dated or engaged in a relationship, CNBC reports.

The Trace reports that in 2017, a team of public health researchers examined the effects of various state gun laws on intimate-partner homicide by looking at data from 45 states from 1980 through 2013.

They found that states with laws prohibiting gun ownership or possession to people with court orders against them, regardless of their criminal history, had 23 percent fewer domestic violence deaths than states that had no restrictions

Gun Surrender Protocol

Laws that prohibit abusers from possessing firearms are only effective if they are enforced.

Unfortunately, enforcement has been a significant issue for gun surrender programs across the U.S. because there is a lack of communication and responsibility among agencies, Nanasi wrote.

She suggested that all agencies enter into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), a formal document that would outline the responsibilities that police, prosecutors, judges and other relevant authorities should have once they become aware of a firearm in a domestic abuse situation.

Police officers are the first line of defense. When they’re called to address a domestic violence issue, they must check if there are any firearms at the scene, and establish if the abuser has a prior violent criminal history.

Even if the perpetrator does not have a criminal history, or is not subject to a protective order that makes them ineligible to possess a firearm, officers can ask for voluntary surrender.

Prosecutors are responsible for asking abuse victims about firearms in the other person’s possession, and passing that knowledge onto judges who must then order police to retrieve the weapon, Nanasi continued.

Litigation

Even after careful consideration of the law and MOUs, agencies may still not remove guns from the hands of domestic abusers.

In that case, litigation through writs of mandamus or by seeking relief under the federal Crime Victims’ Rights Act may be a necessary next step to ensure victims’ safety, according to the paper.

A mandamus action is used to compel a governmental entity to perform “a particular duty required by law.” For example, if a judge has knowledge about a gun in a household where there has been domestic violence but does not order it to be surrendered, a worried spouse could initiate a mandamus action to compel the court or agency to do so.

The Crime Victims’ Rights Act provides specific guarantees to victims of abuse, specifically that, “victims have the right to be reasonably protected from the accused and to be treated with fairness and with respect for their dignity and privacy.”

If an abuser’s possession of a firearm infringes on these rights, a victim can file a motion for relief under the Act, or its state equivalent, requiring police to retrieve the gun.

Observing that a woman living in a home with firearms is almost three times as likely to be murdered than a woman in a gun-free home, Nanasi warned there is too much at stake to continue to allow the legal system to operate on an “honor system” when it comes to domestic abusers and guns.

Nanasi said it was not enough just to follow one leg of the strategy.

“Only all three, working together, have the potential to prevent the gun-related deaths of intimate partners,” she wrote.

SEE ALSO:

Feds Pursue Domestic Violence Cases Involving Guns, The Crime Report, March 25, 2019

“Justice for Domestic Violence Victims Depends on Where You Live” The Crime Report, Feb 20, 2019

Editor’s Note: For more resources and background on domestic violence, see The Crime Report’s Resource Page on domestic violence.

Download the full study here.

This summary was prepared by Andrea Cipriano, a TCR news intern. She welcomes comments from readers.

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