Every year domestic violence offenders in the US commit more than a million acts of domestic violence. Pair the prevalence of domestic violence with the ease of acquiring a firearm in America and you end up with an average of 52 women shot and killed by an intimate partner every single month--52 women shot and killed monthly. In fact, if a gun is present in the home, the woman is six times more likely to die. Women are more likely to be murdered with a gun by an intimate partner than every other means combined. A note before we continue: women are not the only ones who face domestic violence; however, the vast majority of victims are women.
These were the statistics before COVID-19 brought our lives to a grinding halt. Shelter in place orders brought isolation from friends, family, and support services, reduced access to shelters and counseling, limited access to emergency room care and medical assistance and increased financial stress. All over the world, emergency and women’s services saw an increase in reported domestic abuse and calls for help. Shelter in place, combined with easy access to firearms, is a deadly combination that we do not yet have the data to fully understand, and we likely will never know the full impact.
This is not a reality that American women have to live in. There are a number of steps that could be taken immediately that would reduce women’s risk of murder at the hands of an intimate partner:
- Close the boyfriend loophole: At the federal level and in most states, domestic violence legally can only occur between spouses or people sharing a home or children. In other words, if an abuser is a boyfriend or fiancée that does not live with or have children with the abused, then they will not be charged with domestic abuse. The laws that prohibit convicted domestic abusers from having firearms do not apply to these intimate partners. These perpetrators would pass federal background checks and could acquire a gun. The House of Representatives voted to close this loophole when they passed the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in April 2019. It sits in the Senate waiting for action.
- Background check on every gun sale: At the federal level and most states, a background check only has to be conducted by licensed sellers. Private or online sales legally occur without a background check, making it possible for even convicted domestic abusers to purchase a firearm. Bill HR8, passed by the House of Representatives in February 2019, would require a background check on every single gun sale, regardless of who it is purchased from. The bill awaits action by the Senate.
- The Charleston Loophole: After three days, if a background check is not completed, a gun sale can proceed. Particularly in the case of domestic abusers, it can take more than three days for a background checklagent to determine the relationship between someone charged with assault (not domestic violence as discussed with the boyfriend loophole), and the person they assaulted. But after three days, that person can purchase the firearm. It’s the one time we demand bureaucracy move quickly. This is another closed loophole with the passage of the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in April 2019. It continues to gather dust in the Senate.
- Extreme Risk Protection Orders: Often if a woman calls the police and reports that her abuser has a gun, the police cannot remove that weapon from the home legally, even if that person continues to abuse the woman. In addition, when a man is convicted, that doesn’t mean weapons previously purchased will be seized. Extreme Risk Protection Orders, or red flag laws, would provide law enforcement a legal mechanism working through the courts to remove those weapons. It’s important to note that this type of law would still be possible when much needed policing reform legislation is passed. Represenative Lucy McBath introduced H.R. 3076, the Federal Extreme Risk Protection Order Act of 2019 to the House in June 2019. It has not been voted on.
Of course, domestic violence is often linked to other forms of violence and to mass shootings. The loopholes and weak laws discussed above would decrease gun violence in America period--not just against women. As we look toward the fall, a likely second wave of COVID-19 and an America already marred by gun violence, we must act now. The bills noted above, HR8, VAWA, and HR376 are a start to making American women safer and should be passed immediately.
An organization working to raise awareness about gun violence is wearorange.org. June 5th was National Gun Violence Awareness Day.