No surprise: States with the most guns have highest rates of domestic violence gun deaths

In April, Sen. Amy Klobuchar joined a group of House Democrats asking the Senate to follow the House’s lead in reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. So far: crickets.

A new study confirms what anyone who pays attention to domestic violence already knows: The presence of a gun raises the chance of a fatality, and the victim is most likely to be a woman.

As a tweet from Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America puts it, “Gun violence IS a woman’s issue.”

The study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, compared state-by-state rates of gun ownership with rates of gun homicide from 1990 through 2016. The study did not find much correlation between gun ownership rates and overall gun homicides. But when it comes to domestic violence, the study’s authors found that states with the highest gun ownership rates had a nearly 65 percent higher rate of firearm homicide compared with states with lower gun ownership rates. What is needed to lower that rate, they say, are stronger state laws.

“Overall, these findings support the need for state firearm legislation directed toward protecting victims of domestic violence, as access to firearms uniquely increases the likelihood of homicide among this population,” the authors say in their conclusion.

A New York Times story about the study pointed out that the results are not surprising. It quotes Aaron Kivisto, an associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Indianapolis and the study’s lead author.

The study reaffirms a well-known connection between access to guns and abusive relationships turning deadly, at a time when intimate partner homicides are on the rise. Research has shown that women killed by their partners are more likely to be murdered with a firearm than by all other means combined, and the presence of a gun in domestic violence situations can increase the risk of homicide for women by as much as 500 percent, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Both men and women were at increased risk for domestic homicide when firearm ownership increased, the study found. “But the important caveat to that is, whereas men are victims in about three out of four typical homicides that occur, it fully reverses when we are talking about intimate partner homicide,” Dr. Kivisto said. “Women are three in four victims of intimate partner homicide.” …

“It is women, in particular, who are bearing the burden of this increased gun ownership,” he said.

What laws can curb such violence against domestic partners? That is, besides  common-sense gun laws such as universal background checks, which are supported by more than 90 percent of Americans? The study points out that some federal laws are aimed at reducing domestic violence gun deaths. Unfortunately, these laws are not always enforced, so some states have countered with their own statutes.

The rate of estimated gun ownership varies widely, ranging from about 10 percent in Hawaii to 69 percent in Wyoming, with an average ownership rate of 39 percent, according to the study. Higher rates are found in Southern and Western states, and lower rates of gun ownership are found in the Northeast.

The number of murders committed by intimate partners is on the rise nationally. From 2010 to 2017, gun-related domestic killings increased by 26 percent, and the majority of victims are women. The study’s authors suggest that more state laws could help lower the number of those deaths by making it harder for violent partners to obtain and keep guns.

“Studies into these policies suggest that states with laws that prohibit individuals at high risk of intimate partner violence from possessing firearms and require them to relinquish any firearms they currently own have a lower incidence of domestic firearm homicide,” the study’s conclusion says.

Here are ways that some laws help and how they fall short.

Violence Against Women Act. A federal law that addresses such domestic violence is the Violence Against Women Act, but it is currently in limbo until the Senate acts on reauthorization (if ever). The act was first passed in 1994 as part of the original crime bill that year. It has been reauthorized three times: in 2000, 2005, and in 2013 (delayed because some conservatives objected to provisions extending provisions to same-sex couples and to undocumented immigrants). The many provisions of the law established and funded broad community responses to domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking. The act helped to protect victims of sexual and domestic violence, adding stricter provisions regarding domestic abusers and gun ownership. It prohibited gun possession by people subject to permanent restraining orders against committing violence against intimate partners.

The law expired during the government shutdown in December 2018 and January 2019. It was temporarily reinstated by a short-term spending bill but expired again in February 2019. The House passed a reauthorization bill in April but the Senate has refused to take up the legislation. The supposed reason for the Republicans’ refusal is a new provision protecting transgender people. Another new provision would close the so-called “boyfriend loophole,” meaning a violent partner who was not married to or living with the victim would be subject to the law. The restraining order provision was expanded so that the law would bar not only those under a restraining order but also those convicted of abusing, assaulting, or stalking a domestic partner from buying guns.

The Center for American Progress points out the need for continued enhancement of the Violence Against Women Act:

Since its original passage as part of the 1994 crime bill, VAWA has established a vitally important and previously nonexistent infrastructure that responds to domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking. Now is not the time to shy away from the serious work of improving the federal government’s responses to gender-based violence. … Congress can and must continue to push for comprehensive approaches to end violence against women.

Gun Control Act of 1968. Another federal law cited in the study is the Gun Control Act of 1968, passed after the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy. It primarily focuses on regulating interstate commerce in guns. It is supposed to prohibit interstate gun sales except by licensed manufacturers, dealers, and importers, but it’s too easy for private sellers and buyers at gun shows to skirt the law.

The Gun Control Act prohibits all convicted felons (including those convicted of felony domestic violence against a partner), drug users, and the mentally ill from buying guns, but the study points out that it, too, is poorly enforced.

Red-flag laws. Several states are trying to lower the threat of violence by passing so-called “red-flag” laws. A total of 15 states have passed some version of a red-flag law, which permits police or family members to petition a state court to order the temporary removal of guns from someone who may present a danger to others or themselves. Many of those laws were passed after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018, which killed 17 people. Another 21 states have passed some steps toward such a law.

Besides lowering the threat of domestic gun violence, the laws also have been successful in lowering suicide rates, as many of those identified as being potentially dangerous intended harm to themselves.

We already know that the majority of mass shooters also have a history of domestic violence, according to research by Everytown for Gun Safety. More than half of all mass shootings in the United States are related to domestic or family violence. Of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in recent U.S. history, nine were committed by domestic abusers. And the act of mass shooting is not the first instance of domestic violence by these perpetrators.

Everytown for Gun Safety calls the combination of guns and violence against women America’s Uniquely Lethal Domestic Violence Problem, as women in the U.S. are 25 times more likely to be shot and killed as are women in other high-income countries. Common-sense gun safety laws in this country, as well as the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, could save a lot of lives.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on July 28, 2019.

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