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Firearms and Domestic Violence: The Intersections

Domestic abusers and firearms are a deadly combination.  Research published in the American Journal of Public Health found that the presence of a gun in domestic violence situations significantly increases the risk of homicide, endangering victims, other family members, bystanders and coworkers.  Professionals who work in law enforcement and advocacy have found that to reduce domestic violence homicide, the criminal justice system must consistently enforce existing laws and coordinate closely with community organizations. 

On October  7, 2016, the Justice Department hosted a panel of experts, including scholars and practitioners, to discuss this potentially deadly intersection.   Watch a video of the discussion.  Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates opened the discussion – which took place during Domestic Violence Awareness Month and Community Policing Week – by emphasizing the Justice Department’s commitment to building a country where nobody suffers from the horrors of domestic violence.  She noted that the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) works: in the past 18 years, NICS has enforced the law by preventing thousands of convicted domestic abusers from purchasing a firearm from federally licensed dealers.  But, she also noted, NICS is only as good as the data entered into the system, which is why the Attorney General reached out to all U.S. Attorneys to intensify their efforts to submit information to NICS so would-be gun owners cannot purchase a weapon if they fall into a restricted category, such as being under a restraining order or convicted of domestic abuse.

Panelist Jacquelyne Campbell, Ph.D., R.N., from Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, noted that in the United States, when women are murdered, 40 to 50 percent are killed by their husband, boyfriend or ex-partner.  That’s nine times the rate killed by strangers.  In comparison, 5 to 8 percent of men are killed by their partner.

Panelist April Zeoli, Ph.D., Michigan State University, presented data from four longitudinal studies showing that when laws are in place that restrict abusers from purchasing guns, there is an associated decrease in intimate partner murders.  Depending on the source of the data (whether the data come from the state or from large cities within the state), the decrease ranges from 7 to 19 percent.  

The data refute the hypothesis that abusers who want to kill will simply use another weapon if they don’t have a gun.  In fact, guns make it more likely that a death will result.

Other panelists included Ruth Glenn, Executive Director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence; Dave Keck, Winnebago County Court Commissioner; Elizabeth Avore, Legal Director of Everytown for Gun Safety; David Thomas, Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention Response Office; and Rob Valente, Vice President of Policy of the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

In addition to the panel discussion, Kristine Lizdas, Legal Policy Director at the Battered Women’s Justice Project, presented the new website from the National Domestic Violence and Firearms Resource Center:  The site’s mission is to help attorneys, court personnel, law enforcement and communities at large prevent domestic violence homicides through comprehensive implementation and enforcement of domestic violence related firearms prohibitions at all levels of government. 

Updated April 27, 2017