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Forgotten Victims of Gun Violence


U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder speaks at a news conference to announce a new effort to reduce gun violence in the state's major cities in New Haven, Conn.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jessica Hill

Barbara Dye was shot and killed by her husband in 2010, even after obtaining a court protective order and telling authorities that he had an arsenal of firearms. The same is true of Deborah Wigg, who was attempting to leave her abusive husband in 2011, and Melissa Batten, who reported repeated threats by her husband in 2008, filed a protective order, and was still shot and killed.

The ongoing national conversation about gun violence prevention was spurred by a wave of high-profile mass shootings, which account for less than one percent of gun-related deaths. Still, little policy attention has been paid to widespread intimate partner homicides, or murders in which one partner kills another. Though evidence has shown that more than half of mass shootings since 2009 have included an intimate partner among the victims. And, in many of these cases, the shooter had a prior domestic violence charge.

A research review by Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health found that guns were used in 54 percent of the more than 1,300 intimate partner homicides in 2010. In most cases, a history of domestic violence increases the likelihood of a violent death.

But there has been little support for policy that addresses the link between violent behavior toward a loved one and fatal acts of violence.

“Generally, we think about gun violence in this country in a certain way,” said Shannon Frattaroli, co-author of the Johns Hopkins report and an associate professor at the university’s School of Public Health. “We tend to associate [guns] with stranger-oriented crimes. But, the reality is that most people in this country who die by guns die in a very different kind of scenario. We just don’t think about threats from the people who are close to us—from the people who claim to love us—as threats that ultimately make up the enormous numbers of people who are dying by guns.”

Frattaroli and her co-author April Zeoli, an assistant professor at Michigan State University’s School of Criminal Justice, examined the current laws regarding gun ownership among domestic violence offenders and found them lacking.

There are currently federal laws that prohibit the purchase or possession of firearms by people who have been convicted of domestic violence offenses or subject to an active domestic violence restraining order. Several states—most recently Colorado—have passed similar laws. But the researches don't think these laws do enough to protect victims, and are rarely enforced effectively.

“Even though somebody can be restricted from purchasing or possessing a firearm, if they already possess a firearm, nobody goes to take it away from them," Zeoli said. "If we work on implementation of those laws, then we can reduce to an even greater degree the number of prohibited people who actually have firearms illegally now, and by extension, potentially reduce intimate partner homicide.”

This lack of enforcement comes despite evidence that such policies are effective.

“I’ve done research on those state laws,” Zeoli said. “And the law preventing people with active domestic violence restraining orders against them from purchasing or possessing guns seems to result in a reduction of domestic violence homicide by over 10 percent.”

Limiting access to firearms is further complicated by the fact that those legally prohibited from purchasing a weapon can easily skirt the background check requirement by purchasing a gun through a private dealer.

Pro-gun advocates have suggested arming domestic abuse victims so that they are able to better defend themselves from an attack. Research shows, though, that female domestic violence victims are up to eight times more likely to be killed if there is a firearm in the house. Even women well-trained in the use of a gun have died after being shot by their intimate partner.

“I worry about bringing a gun into a violent relationship and what that’s going to mean,” Frattaroli said. “While the gun might be introduced into the argument as means to protect the woman from abuse or rape, it’s not too hard to imagine that it could quickly be used as a weapon that’s turned against her.”

Some have argued that those determined to kill their partners will do so whether they have access to a gun or not, but the authors of the Johns Hopkins report dispute that.

“There’s this perception that when it comes to domestic violence, means don’t matter," Frattaroli said. "But, in fact, means do matter. The access to a weapon, and the availability of a lethal weapon is tremendously important as to whether or not a victim in a domestic violence situation lives or dies.”

Domestic violence is sometimes wrongly romanticized as a "crime of passion," or seen as an event that can't be predicted from past behavior.

“Quite often, domestic violence homicides are reported on in ways that make it sound like this is an aberration, it’s completely unusual, it’s something no one could have predicted, and something no one could have stopped, and therefore, why should we do anything about it," Zeoli said. "When stories are reported on in that way, there’s no impetus for the public to do anything, because they are presented with the idea that they can’t.”

Another myth the researches saw is that women bear responsibility for these incidents by failing to remove themselves from the home.

“The most prevalent type of victim blaming that you see tends to be, ‘Why didn’t she leave?’” Zeoli said. “And the idea present there is that she could have stopped it, just by leaving, and she didn’t, so she’s culpable. Domestic violence doesn’t just stop when somebody leaves their perpetrator. Generally, it continues. Often, it escalates. The homicide actually most usually occurs in that moment of leaving or having just left.”

Zeoli and Frattaroli have offered policy recommendations that they believe could reduce intimate partner homicide.

They suggest expanding the definition of “intimate partner” to include current and former dating partners. Current law only applies to spouses or those who share a child or residence. Domestic violence is present even in short-term relationships, and these abusers should have the same restrictions regarding their ability to purchase or possess a firearm.

Additionally, they propose making it easier for law enforcement officials to carry out the current laws, by creating a registry of gun owners or database of gun sales to help determine whether guns are owned by anyone with a domestic violence restraining order or conviction, as well as training on how to best ensure that this prohibition is not violated.

They also recommend automating the reporting of any restraining order or conviction that would disqualify a person from gun ownership as part of an improved background check system, as well as expanding background checks to cover all gun sales.

Both Frattaroli and Zeoli recognize the need for additional research. This has been difficult due to funding cuts pushed by the National Rifle Association nearly two decades ago. However, President Obama included a restoration of this funding as part of his recent gun violence prevention plan.

“There has been precious little research in this area,” Frattaroli said. “And, the research that we do have suggests that there are some meaningful reforms that can be made. In states where those laws are being implemented more strongly than others, we’re seeing solid reductions in domestic violence homicides. So, there’s a lot of early research that suggests that if we knew more, if we understood this problem better, that we would be able to offer more informed solutions that could be effective.” 

Kevin Jersey is a reporter for Campus Progress. Follow him on Twitter @wordsnotbullets.

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