What Some Cities Are Doing To Keep Guns Away From Domestic Abusers

Originally published on January 24, 2019 10:59 am

Stephanie Bond was married to her husband for almost 22 years before he called her into the master bedroom one afternoon in February 2010.

“He pulled out a .45-caliber gun and shot me three times in our walk-in closet with three of the four children at the home,” Bond said. “After he shot me, he put the gun in his mouth and killed himself — and died next to me.”

Bond survived and is one of almost 1 million women that have been shot or shot at by their partner, according to analysis of U.S. Department of Justice data. More than 4 million women have been threatened with a gun.

While federal law prohibits those convicted of domestic violence offenses from buying a gun, the federal background check system is still rife with loopholes allowing abusers to skirt the system.

For example, someone convicted of a misdemeanor offense of assaulting their girlfriend could still buy a gun if they don’t live with their victim, because federal law doesn’t apply to all dating relationships.

Ultimately, participation by state authorities in the federal background check system is voluntary, which means states have to submit the information for someone to appear on the list. Many states have failed to require information sharing or allocate the necessary funding. Millions of convictions are missing from the database, so there are gaps in the data.

Flagging Abusers In Dallas

In Dallas, a new policy expands the domestic violence offenses reported to the criminal background check database, barring more people from purchasing a gun.

Since October 2018, the city’s Marshal’s Office has referred people convicted of domestic violence offenses of a Class C misdemeanor, often assault without visible injuries like a push or a shove, to Texas’ Department of Public Safety (DPS).

DPS then sends that information to the FBI’s National Instant Background Check System (NICS), the system used by gun stores to determine the eligibility of a gun buyer. Appearing in the NICS database bars a convicted domestic abuser from buying a gun anywhere in the country.

While federal law does not apply to all instances of intimate partner violence, Dallas now reports incidents of domestic violence in all dating relationships and mandates that the city report all convictions for domestic violence, whether a Class C misdemeanor or a felony.

Less than three months after enacting its new statute, Dallas’ Marshal’s Office already referred at least nine additional convictions to DPS.

Dallas Municipal Court Judge Preston Robinson and his gavel see domestic violence misdemeanor cases firsthand. He says he’s often watching a gradual, violent escalation.

“It normally starts out with some sort of emotional abuse, and then from emotional, we move to some small physical abuse. And then after that physical abuse, I keep saying it’s a ‘graduation,'” Robinson said. “Eventually, we do graduate, unfortunately, to something with firearms.”

Dallas modeled its new law after San Antonio’s, which crafted its policy in response to the Sutherland Springs shooting in which a gunman killed 26 people at a church service in November 2017.

The shooter had been previously convicted of assaulting his ex-wife and stepson, but the Air Force failed to to report these convictions to the FBI’s background check database.

Cities Making Changes

Cities all over the country have enacted new policies designed to keep guns out of the hands of abusers.

In Seattle, the city partnered with surrounding King County to create a firearms unit, which includes both police officers and prosecutors, that actually confiscates guns from domestic abusers.

The unit seized more than 400 guns in 2018, according to Kimberly Wyatt, a King County prosecutor with the firearms unit.

“It’s kind of shocking how many firearms are in the home,” said Wyatt.

In Columbus, Ohio, the city now prohibits gun possession for those convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence conviction.

And in California, any domestic violence conviction prohibits an abuser from owning, possessing or obtaining a firearm.

Reaching Out For Help

Getting help can be a matter of life or death.

“That’s when the risk is highest, when the woman is serious about ending the relationship,” said Susan B. Sorenson, director of the Ortner Center on Violence & Abuse in Relationships at the University of Pennsylvania. “Because that’s when a woman is saying ‘Stay away, I don’t want this anymore, leave me alone.’ And that can enrage some men.”

The entire dynamic of a relationship changes once a gun enters the picture, Sorensen says, even if it happens just once.

Domestic violence occurs in all kinds of relationships.

Sorenson found that when a gun is used in a relationship, it’s most often held by a man, with his female partner being the victim. Boyfriends, she found, threaten their intimate partner with a gun just as much as husbands. Federal law, she says, may not offer the appropriate protections.

Meanwhile, Bond, who lives in Dallas now, has recovered from her wounds. She lost two-thirds of her blood on that day in 2010.

“I fought so hard to recover physically after that drama, and what I failed to take into account was the mental piece and how that would have such an impact on me long-term,” Bond said. “There’s a lot of therapy that we’ve all had to go through just so we can figure out how to process this.”

She is optimistic about programs like the one in Dallas.

“[Domestic violence is] not lumped in with so many other misdemeanor crimes,” Bond said. “I think now that there’s a way to recognize domestic violence and its own bubble, it will bring attention and maybe a level of seriousness to the issue.”

If you or anyone you know is suffering from domestic abuse call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.

Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.

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