Public attention was gripped by the most recent mass shooting, at the Navy Yard in Washington, but during Domestic Violence Awareness month, we need to focus on the fact that women face a heightened risk of gun violence.
Women are more than three-and-a-half times as likely to be killed by an intimate partner as men. A gun in a household with a history of domestic violence increases by 20 times the risk that a woman will be killed there, compared to households without guns. Similarly, more than 75 percent of stalking victims are women — and stalkers use weapons to harm or threaten their victims in 1 out of 5 cases. The statistics show: Guns plus a history of domestic violence or stalking equals increased risk of death to women.
Tragically, there are numerous stories that bear this out. Zina Daniel obtained a restraining order against her estranged husband after he made numerous threats against her. Teri Lee sought police protection and obtained a restraining order against her ex-boyfriend after he broke into her home and threatened her with butcher knives. Stacey Sutera notified police when an acquaintance began stalking her, and ultimately helped secure a criminal conviction against him. Laura Acevez sought police protection from an abusive ex-boyfriend and told police that he owned guns. These women were all shot and killed by the men who abused them, even after seeking help from the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, there are so many others.
Congress recognized the risks posed by domestic abusers with guns by passing legislation in the 1990s prohibiting people convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors or subject to certain restraining orders from possessing guns. These laws have been effective in preventing some dangerous individuals from obtaining guns: Since November 1998, more than 104,000 gun sales to convicted domestic abusers have been prevented by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, as well as an additional 44,000 sales to abusers subject to restraining orders.
Yet women like Daniel, Lee, Sutera and Acevez are still vulnerable to gun violence. Why?
Because federal laws have significant loopholes that permit dangerous predators easy access to guns. Women legislators — Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) in the Senate and Representatives Lois Capps (D-Calif.) and Janice Hahn (D-Calif.) in the House — have introduced bills to address these issues. Their bills are still in committee and we urge Congress to act quickly to pass this important legislation to better protect women.
There are four significant weaknesses in the current law that leave women vulnerable to gun violence. First, background checks are not required for all gun sales. The current background check system makes it easy for felons and domestic abusers to buy guns with no questions asked from unlicensed sellers at gun shows, online and just about anywhere else. This is how Daniel’s killer was able to buy the gun he used to murder his estranged wife and two others, despite the restraining order against him.
Second, the current gun possession ban on domestic abusers fails to cover dating partners. Federal law protects women victimized by spouses or co-parents, not dating partners. This is why Lee’s abuser was permitted to own the gun he used to kill her despite the restraining order she obtained to protect herself from him.
Third, convicted stalkers can buy guns. Seven states bar people convicted of misdemeanor stalking crimes from possessing guns. But federal law allows these convicted stalkers to buy guns, despite the often increasingly violent nature of their behavior. This is why Sutera’s murderer was able to own a gun even after his conviction for stalking her.
Fourth, law enforcement isn’t doing enough to take guns away from domestic abusers. Too often domestic abusers who are prohibited from gun ownership are not forced to surrender guns they already own. This is why Acevez’s killer was able to keep his guns, even after she obtained a restraining order and informed police that he continued to own guns.
The bottom line is that it is just too easy for men who seek to harm women to buy and possess guns. As fatal gun violence against women continues, Congress must take action to close these loopholes that put all women in danger.