Twenty-six people―mostly children―were gunned down in Sandy Hook Elementary School. Twelve people were shot to death in a Colorado movie theater. Fourteen people slain in San Bernardino. Fifty-three people were ambushed in Orlando. Then there were the woman and four family members in Texas, shot and killed by her husband at their daughter’s birthday party; the woman, three of her friends, and her attorney shot and killed by the woman’s ex-husband in Arizona; and the Short family―a mother and her three children―murdered by their father while they slept in their Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota home.
In addition to being mass shootings, these killings have another thing in common: many of the shooters had a history of domestic violence. And they are not the only ones. A 2015 study revealed that of the 133 mass shootings between 2009 and 2015, 57 percent had ties to domestic and/or family violence. In fact, in 21 of those cases, the shooter had a prior domestic violence charge.
A recent U.S. Supreme court decision recognized the dangerous connection between domestic violence perpetrators and gun violence and maintained prevention efforts previously put in place by Congress. On June 27, 2016, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of limiting gun ownership and possession for domestic violence perpetrators. The Court’s strong stance came as a relief to victims of domestic violence and women’s advocates across the country because of its implications for the safety of victims. The Supreme Court effectively conveyed that it had no intention of drawing a line between reckless and intentional acts of violence, focusing not on the intent of the abuser, but on the abuser’s actual or attempted use of force.
More than a decade ago, in 1994, Congress enacted a law prohibiting individuals found guilty of a felony from owning or possessing guns. Nonetheless, most domestic violence perpetrators were slipping through the cracks because domestic violence crimes are often charged as, or pleaded down to, misdemeanors. To bridge the gap, Congress amended the law in 1996 to read that any person guilty of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” is prohibited from owning or possessing a gun. (A MCDV requires that: (1) the person was convicted of a misdemeanor under federal, state, or tribal law; (2) the crime was committed against a domestic relation; and (3) the perpetrator used or attempted to use physical force, or threatened the use of a deadly weapon against the victim.)
However, domestic violence gun laws are not uniform throughout the states, which is where the recent Supreme Court case, Voisine v. United States, comes into play. In that case, two petitioners in Maine were charged with violating federal law by possessing guns following misdemeanor domestic violence convictions. The two men argued that they were exempt from these charges because Maine’s law criminalized “reckless” domestic violence which, according to the petitioners, did not qualify as “use of physical force.” Instead, the petitioners claimed “reckless” implied the conduct was accidental. They believed that a reckless act of violence―as opposed to a malicious act of violence―was not grounds to lose their right to bear arms. The Court disagreed, stating it does not matter whether a person acted intentionally or recklessly―so long as the person willfully exerted a force that the person knew was substantially likely to cause harm. As such, not only did the Supreme Court uphold the federal law, but it further clarified that the gun prohibition was intended to reach to domestic violence perpetrators across the country, despite variations in state statutory language.
Citing previous jurisprudence and congressional intent in its ruling, it is apparent that the Supreme Court felt strongly about the dangers of domestic violence perpetrators owning guns.
As seen in the examples referenced above, there is a strong link between mass shootings and domestic violence. Domestic violence abusers are statistically two to ten times more likely to commit violent crimes with guns than the average gun-owner.
In addition, domestic violence perpetrators’ access to guns increases the lethality in domestic violence situations. A recent Huffington Post study revealed that in January of this year alone, 112 people in the United States died as a result of domestic violence. Not surprisingly, guns were involved in more than half of the deaths. Domestic violence perpetrators are five times more likely to kill someone in a domestic violence incident when a gun is present. Although not perfect, laws criminalizing gun possession for domestic violence perpetrators have the ability to decrease the amount of gun-related domestic violence homicides by upwards of 25 percent.
But laws are not enough; we need to do more to limit access to guns. For example, this struggle plays out in Minnesota where, since 2013, it has banned domestic violence perpetrators from owning guns. Nonetheless, each year guns are still involved in more than half of domestic violence homicides in the state, and in 2015, 37 percent of these homicides were executed by men who were legally prohibited from possessing guns.
Despite where people stand when it comes to the Second Amendment, it is clear that individuals with a history of domestic violence are statistically more likely to commit acts of violence in the future and that guns substantially increase the lethality of domestic violence incidents. It is imperative that access to guns be limited for domestic violence perpetrators both on paper and in practice.
By: Rachel Pence, a summer intern with The Advocates’ Women’s Human Rights Program and a student at the University of San Diego School of Law.