The Relationship Between Gun Violence and Domestic Abuse

In the United States, a woman is fatally shot by her partner every 16 hours. That is 760 women slain each year – leaving children without their mothers, families without their sisters and daughters, and communities without their colleagues and friends – all because their partner had access to a gun.

Gun violence and domestic abuse have a strong relationship. In the U.S., 4.5 million women have had an intimate partner threaten them with a gun, while 1 million women have been shot or shot at by their partner.

Domestic abusers are often categorized as controlling, jealous, hypersensitive, manipulative, and violent. When they are given access to a gun, the lethality of their attacks increases. One study found that the presence of a gun in a domestic violence dispute means the chances are five times greater that a woman will be fatally shot.

In addition to the danger faced by domestic abuse victims, an abuser’s access to guns can increase the number of their victims, extending their targets to children, relatives and innocent bystanders.

54% of mass shootings are related to domestic violence, with children representing 43% of the victims.

Domestic abuse has been identified as a warning sign for mass shooting events. Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people in the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting, had abused his ex-wife. In central Kansas, Cedric Ford fatally shot 3 coworkers and injured 14 others, only 90 minutes after being served a restraining order from his girlfriend, whom he had abused. And the man who killed 26 churchgoers in Texas last November had previously faced domestic assault charges for beating, choking, and threatening his wife and son.

In one study, out of the 156 mass shootings analyzed, which included the murder of four or more people, 54% were related to domestic violence or family violence. In these cases, 43% of the victims were children.

Frustratingly so, one-third of the perpetrators in these mass shootings were prohibited from possessing guns at the time of the shooting.

Criminalizing gun possession for abusers

As the evidence shows that it’s incredibly dangerous for domestic abusers to have access to guns, policy makers have made it illegal. In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed the Domestic Violence Offender gun ban, commonly called the Lautenberg Amendment, that bans the access of firearms for those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence or who are under a restraining order for domestic abuse. From November 1998 to August 2018, this amendment has prevented over 143,000 people convicted of domestic violence from purchasing a gun.

However, despite its attempts at preventing deadly attacks, the specific definitions used in the amendment allows for some abusers to be exempt. For instance, the victim and abuser need to be married, have a child together, or live together. Therefore, it often does not apply to boyfriends or other relatives. It also doesn’t include those convicted of stalking.

Another loophole in the federal law is that it does not require abusers to surrender previously obtained firearms once they are convicted of a domestic violence crime. Abusers can continue to commit crimes with guns they are not legally allowed to own.

Additionally, the amendment requires agencies to report convictions to a database which is accessed during a background check prior to purchase. However, there have been incidences where parties have failed to do so, resulting in the murder of the abuse victims and others.

Lautenberg Amendment loopholes:

  • Does not apply to non-spouse abusers, or abusers of family members
  • Fails to keep guns out of the hands of stalkers
  • Does not require convicted abusers to surrender guns
  • Domestic violence offenses aren’t reliably recorded in the database for background checks

To fill these gaps, individual states have adopted laws restricting access to guns and ammunition. These laws include domestic violence related crimes not covered by federal law, require convicted abusers to surrender their guns and ammunition, require the reporting of domestic violence offenders to databases used for background checks, and include dating partners. Laws such as these have been shown to reduce the risk of intimate partner homicides by 19%.

The 2018 Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, a bill introduced to the House of Representatives in 2018, would also help close the loopholes in federal law by making it illegal to sell a gun to someone convicted of stalking — if the bill is passed.

Surveys have shown that over 70% of the public, including gun owners, strongly support laws that close these dangerous loopholes. And while many states have versions of these laws in place, not all of them do. At the federal level, new legislation has been introduced to both the House and the Senate that will do just that, and while they have yet to be approved, they could one day save the lives of thousands of women and children.

If you are a victim of domestic abuse and need help, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224, or visit their website at www.thehotline.org for more information.

You can also learn more about how domestic violence affects women and ways that you can help victims through LiveYourDream.org.

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Ashleen Knutsen is a science writer and editor in Los Angeles. After a decade of experience in engineering and research, she decided to pursue a career in science communications to not only spark women and girls’ interest in STEM, but to let them know that they too can change the world.

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