Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Guns and Domestic Violence: Why Federal Laws Fail to Keep Women Safe

Kaitlin Sidorsky, Wendy J. Schiller

Tausha Haight, her five children and her mother were all shot to death in January 2023 by her husband, whom she had filed for divorce from just weeks earlier, and who had been investigated for child abuse two years before that. Less than a month later, Linda Robinson and her son Sebastian were murdered by gun by her husband, who then shot himself. Sadly, these incidents are not isolated, and occur far too often.

The inability of the federal government to enforce its own laws, and the reluctance of states to comply with those laws, especially when it comes to firearm ownership and possession, is no starker than in the arena of domestic violence. One in four women is a victim of domestic violence, and nearly 50% of women who are murdered by domestic violence abusers are killed by a firearm. It is a well-known fact that the presence of a firearm in a domestic violence situation increases the likelihood of intimate partner homicide by 500%.

Our new book, Inequality Across State Lines: How Policymakers Have Failed Domestic Violence Victims in the United States, analyzes the federal and state policy history of domestic violence firearm legislation (DVFL) and adoption from 1990-2017. Drawing attention to the importance of including domestic violence in comprehensive firearm crime prevention policies is one of the goals of our work. In the book, we paint a stark picture of the challenges that victims face in states that do not protect them by barring their abusers from owning or possessing firearms. We explain why states do or do not adopt their own domestic violence firearm laws. The book demonstrates that in the 1990s the initial passage of federal domestic violence legislation in the forms of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the Lautenberg Amendment encouraged states to pass their own DVFLs, creating a wave of DVFL passage across the states the likes of which have not been seen since. However, over time, the polarization over gun safety legislation, and the strengthening ties between the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Republican Party (GOP) have meant that states with Republican controlled state governments, or more conservative ideology among their residents, have been less likely to adopt these life-saving laws. As a result, today a victim of domestic violence is more or less protected from domestic violence depending on where she lives, the judge she goes before, and the color of her skin. We argue that the failure to enforce federal law to protect women against domestic firearm violence, at all levels of government, renders women unequal to each other in their human security across state lines.

The movement to adopt policies that address domestic violence began slowly in the late 1970’s and culminated in the bipartisan passage of VAWA in 1994, which was sponsored by then-Senator Joseph Biden (D-Delaware). At that time, there was evidence of a link between intimate partner homicide and firearm access and to address it, VAWA prohibited firearm access for domestic violence felons. In 1996, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey) sponsored the Lautenberg Amendment which extended firearm prohibitions to domestic violence misdemeanants. At first, he was swiftly attacked by the NRA, whose spokesperson, Elizabeth Swasey, was quoted as saying, “…we should be taking domestic violence seriously and prosecuting it vigorously rather than going off on side issues like this bill.” Though the provision met stiff opposition initially, in a surprising turn of events, it received the support of none other than the Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA), who had earlier refused to support Lautenberg’s bill. Gingrich was quoted as saying “I’m very much in favor of stopping people who engage in violence against their spouses from having guns. I think that’s a very reasonable position.” The Lautenberg Amendment subsequently passed. Together, these two pieces of federal legislation held the promise of more protection for domestic violence victims from firearm related injury and death.

Nearly thirty years later, it is clear how the political ground has shifted underneath the issue of firearm related domestic violence. Today, the Republican Party’s alliance with the National Rifle Association is stronger than ever; protecting Second Amendment rights with no limitations is now a firmly entrenched tenet of GOP political ideology. This GOP entrenched opposition to gun safety legislation makes no exceptions for domestic violence abusers. For example, one domestic violence firearm policy, commonly referred to as “closing the boyfriend loophole,” extends prohibition on gun ownership or possession to dating partners who are convicted of domestic violence. But until 2022, it struggled to become federal law; VAWA and the Lautenberg Amendment only barred firearms from DV felons and misdemeanants who were married or who shared a child. Dating partners were excluded from the law and therefore provided a loophole for many offenders to access deadly weapons. Despite the logical extension of the original Lautenberg Amendment to dating partners, the NRA and the Republican Party opposed it for more than a decade, and GOP members in the Senate filibustered reauthorizations of VAWA in 2019, 2020, and 2021. When the House of Representatives again passed the VAWA reauthorization in 2022, and included a provision to close the boyfriend loophole, the Senate again rejected it. When the language was subsequently removed from the House version and passed again, the Senate voted to reauthorize VAWA.

However, the Uvalde school shooting in Texas in May 2022 changed the political landscape once again. That tragedy claimed the lives of 19 elementary school students and 2 teachers and began with an act of firearm domestic violence when the assailant shot his own grandmother in the face. In response to that shooting, Congress passed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (BSCA) which included a provision to close the boyfriend loophole. The differences in the passage of the Lautenberg Amendment in 1996 with GOP support, compared to the recent struggle to reauthorize VAWA and close the boyfriend loophole, highlight the effects of partisanship and polarization on gun control. Only time will tell if closing the boyfriend loophole at the federal level in 2022 encourages states to adopt laws that strengthen protection from firearm related domestic violence for all individuals.

Restrictions on gun ownership and possession for domestic violence abusers save lives, but every step that Congress takes forward can be undone by the courts or at the state level. Montana and Missouri, for example, have few or no state domestic violence firearm laws, and have considered passing new laws that would give themselves sanctuary from enforcing federal firearm restrictions. In the judicial sphere, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that prohibiting individuals who are under restraining orders from owning guns is unconstitutional; if the Supreme Court upholds that ruling, it will gut a core protection for women against being murdered by their abusers.

Inequality Across State Lines contains recommendations for policies that can help strengthen protections for women, from federal requirements that states adopt certain laws as a condition of funding, to encouraging the widespread use of lethality assessment programs across police departments around the country. We hope that our book assists scholars, policymakers, and practitioners in highlighting where, why, and how the government succeeds or fails to address domestic firearm violence.

For resources for domestic violence in the United States visit the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence at www.ncadv.org and the National Domestic Violence Hotline at www.thehotline.org

Inequality across State Lines by Kaitlin Sidorsky and Wendy J. Schiller

About The Authors

Kaitlin Sidorsky

Kaitlin N. Sidorsky is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Coastal Carolina University. She is the author of All Roads Lead to Power: Appointed and Elected Paths to Publ...

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Wendy J. Schiller

Wendy J. Schiller is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy at Brown University. Her publications include Dynamics of Am...

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