Lawmakers should follow the Supreme Court’s lead to keep guns away from domestic abusers

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Friday, July 1, 2016

In what, to some, might at first glance seem like an unremarkable decision, on Monday, the Supreme Court demonstrated a deep understanding of how domestic violence is perpetrated. On its face, the Court’s decision in Voisine v. United States was a sterile, hyper-technical legal analysis primarily hinging on the meaning of the word “use,” where the Court refrained from discussing domestic violence at any length. However, the Court’s discussion provided two examples that demonstrate that the Supreme Court majority has an informed and accurate understanding of domestic violence, and how to protect abused domestic partners. That is a victory in itself for women, who are the primary victims of domestic abuse.  

To demonstrate how reckless domestic assault occurs, and why those convicted of such assaults should not possess weapons, the Court gave two examples. The first was of a husband who, in a fit of rage, throws a plate against a wall near where his wife is standing, which causes a shard to ricochet and injure her. The second was of a boyfriend who slams shut a door as his girlfriend follows close behind, which results in her fingers becoming caught in the door jamb. These two examples embody what domestic violence victims and survivors know all too well: a multitude of acts, seemingly minor or inadvertent when isolated, amalgamate to create a perpetual state of fear, intimidation, isolation, and injury that the victim must endure. This dynamic—violence that the abuser can, often successfully, explain away as unintentional—shields domestic violence from full view. It is violence nonetheless, with devastating consequences to families, particularly when the abuser possesses a firearm.       

To put it simply, domestic abusers with access to guns mean more women die. Indeed, every month, 51 women in the United States are shot and killed by a current or former partner. A majority of the Supreme Court justices understand the realities of domestic violence, and how easily it can be masked. 

Yet legislatures are still failing to take actions critical to protecting domestic violence victims. There are still gaping loopholes that allow domestic abusers to lawfully obtain guns. For example, even though domestic violence within a dating context looks the same as domestic violence in a marriage, it does not qualify as a domestic violence relationship which would prohibit the abuser from obtaining guns. Additionally, the gap in federal law that allows unlicensed gun sales without a background check puts guns in the hands of domestic abusers. Background checks are proven to be effective in curbing gun violence. According to Everytown for Gun Safety, 46 percent fewer women are shot to death by intimate partners in the 18 states (and District of Columbia) that require background checks on all gun sales.

Domestic violence, whether in the marital or dating context, has larger societal impacts, and domestic abusers pose a risk to everyone. Domestic violence is a proven indicator of mass violence. A study by Everytown for Gun Safety found that in 18 percent of mass shootings between 2009 and 2014, the perpetrator had previously been charged with domestic violence, and in 57 percent of the mass shootings the shooter killed a current or former partner or close family member. Omar Mateen’s ex-wife has described a pattern of domestic abuse during their marriage. In the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, he murdered 49 people and injured 53 others at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. 

Domestic violence impacts both individual victims and society at large. Women have the right to live free from violence. Nobody deserves to be gunned down by a domestic abuser. The Supreme Court has saved lives by interpreting the law through a lens of understanding what domestic violence really looks like. Federal and state legislatures around the country should take the Court’s lead and take informed action to close other loopholes that allow domestic abusers to carry guns. 

Contributed by: 

Penny Venetis
Jennifer Becker