The Link Between Domestic Violence and Other Gun Deaths Is Shocking

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Jan. 15 2014 6:21 PM

Why Give Violent Domestic Abusers a Gun?

How the Supreme Court’s definition of violence today will affect the number of gun injuries tomorrow.

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Domestic violence perpetrators use guns against their partners with alarming frequency. Being shot by an intimate partner is the most common cause of intentional death of women in this country. In intimate heterosexual relationships, two-thirds of the women killed by their partner die by gunshot. (Most gun-involved crimes involve men killing other men they know; among gay and lesbian couples, gay men are more likely to be victims of intimate partner gun-related homicide than are gay women.) Studies have shown that the presence of a gun in a home plagued by partner violence increases the risk of homicide by a factor of six and that people threatened or hurt with a gun in an intimate relationship were 20 times more likely to be killed. (The use of a gun greatly increases the odds that any violence will result in a fatality.)

Homicides are the most dramatic conclusions of cases of partner violence, but guns are frequent and integral parts of other forms of partner violence, such as nonlethal physical harm, threats, and coercion. Access to guns exacerbates the harm to victims even if the trigger is never pulled—a recent study showed that 65 percent of women in emergency domestic violence shelters who lived in a home with a gun had been threatened or intimidated by it. Mock execution, which may consist of holding an unloaded gun to a person’s head and pulling the trigger, is considered a form of psychological torture.

We hear very little about the fact that police officers consider domestic incidents some of their most dangerous calls. Between 1996 and 2009, 14 percent of officers killed in the line of duty were responding to a domestic incident, and 97 percent of them were killed with a gun. Domestic violence makes up the largest category of calls to which police respond and represents 17 percent of the violent crimes in this country. When the perpetrator is armed, not only is the victim at much greater risk of serious harm or death, but so is the responding officer. These statistics probably explain why three national and out-of-state police organizations filed friend-of-the-court briefs in this case. The experts responsible for our safety, the folks who carry guns for a living, want this federal provision to stand unchanged.

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But perhaps the most surprising implication of narrowing the federal protection is its connection to mass shootings. While the nation agonizes over how to reduce the number of mass killings like those in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo., we shouldn’t ignore the fact that this federal law can serve as an effective tool to prevent some of them. An analysis of 93 mass shootings committed between 2009 and 2013 found that more than half—57%—started as the murder of a current or former intimate partner, bringing down others along the way.

Notably, the Washington, D.C., sniper, John Allen Muhammad, was originally detained for violating a federal law that prohibits anyone subject to a domestic violence order of protection from possessing a firearm. That initial arrest permitted law enforcement to build the case needed to prosecute him successfully for his shooting spree. All of his target locations were places his former wife, Mildred Muhammad, frequented. Much of the mass shooting debate has focused on access to guns by individuals who are mentally ill, but a recent report by the American Psychological Association included a recommendation to restrict access to guns for convicted domestic violence offenders as well. 

The stated goal of the federal law at play in Castleman is to keep “firearms out of the hands of domestic abusers.” The 6th Circuit interpretation would eviscerate that goal. Under the appeals court’s definition of violent force, almost no domestic violence misdemeanors would qualify. According to the government’s brief, domestic violence convictions in nearly two-thirds of the states at the time the federal ban passed would be exempt, since those state laws have no requirement of actual physical force (similar to the Tennessee law). If this new definition prevails, states wishing to avoid this provision would have to begin carefully crafting misdemeanors that fall short of the new inflated standard, and a carefully tailored, evidence-based approach to managing access to firearms would be removed from our toolkit.

The Tennessee decisions fly in the face of everything we know about the lethal combination of partner violence and guns. When the most common cause of intentional homicide of women is intimate partner violence, when police officers are more likely to be killed responding to a domestic incident than to a burglary, when there is popular support for removing guns from domestic violence offenders, and when there is a known correlation between perpetrators of domestic violence and mass murderers, why would we possibly eviscerate a provision that can and does help us to curb these tides?

(Disclosure: Barasch assisted in preparing an amicus brief in the case, and her husband is a named attorney on the brief.)

Amy Barasch is the former executive director of the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence and is a professor at SUNY Albany.