According to the Violence Policy Center’s 2019 report When Men Murder Women, 92% of homicides committed against women were perpetrated by men known to the women. Of those, 62% were either spouses or intimate partners of the victims. For those cases in which a weapon could be identified, 57% of the homicides were committed with a firearm, and two-thirds of those firearms were committed with a handgun. Black women, specifically, were murdered at a rate twice that of white women, with 62% of those murders committed with a firearm, and 72% of those firearms being handguns.
Access to a firearm has long been identified as one of the most crucial lethality indicators for victims of domestic violence, increasing a victim’s risk of lethality five times.
It is against this backdrop of the role of firearms in intimate partner violence and homicide cases that laws have been enacted on the federal and state levels prohibiting domestic abusers from possessing firearms.
Most communities do not enforce
Across the nation, more than half of states have laws requiring domestic abusers to relinquish firearms in their possession if they are subject to a domestic violence protection order (DVPO) or have been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence (MCDV). Unfortunately, very few communities have actually implemented these laws effectively. In fact, most communities do not actively enforce these prohibitions at all.
The reasons for this vary across jurisdictions and are sometimes quite complex. Generally, however, implementation and enforcement of these prohibitions are stymied by purely logistical hurdles.
Many of these stymied communities operate under weak or vague state statutory schemes. While some states’ statutes include specific directives to courts and law enforcement regarding how and by whom firearm surrender should be accomplished, many do not.
Some states’ statutes provide specific, chronological steps for conducting firearm surrender with responsibilities assigned accordingly, but most states’ laws provide very little guidance or authority as to how this takes place. The result is that without specific laws outlining a process and responsibilities, it is unclear to most communities how to apply law to local practice and agree upon who is responsible for various aspects of implementation.
Helping communities overcome hurdles
At the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence and Firearms, we work with communities that are working on overcoming various logistical hurdles to full implementation and enforcement of firearm prohibitions. We advise communities that effective firearm surrender protocols have a minimum of four essential components: 1) accurately identifying individuals prohibited from possessing firearms; 2) determining whether those individuals possess firearms; 3) issuing legal orders that direct those individuals to surrender any firearms; and crucially, 4) monitoring compliance with the orders and ensuring that firearms have been surrendered.
It is essential that these four components are formally considered and developed to realize actual and reliable implementation and enforcement. In the absence of any single feature, communities cannot reliably assure that prohibited persons are not in possession of firearms.
Each of these steps in firearm surrender protocols require thoughtful planning, communication and cooperation between the various players in the legal system. The details of a community’s legal system must be collectively waded-through, or “mapped,” and discussed.
For example, identifying how and where information about firearm possession exist inside various agencies in the legal system necessitates that those agencies be willing to look at the data each collects and to share that information. Monitoring compliance with court orders requires that courts and law enforcement create new and reliable communication channels.
For several decades, most communities have been slow to sit down and work out solutions to the various hurdles that implementation of the statutes presents. This has resulted in few models and protocols that other communities can replicate.
For example, when one community identifies how to facilitate safe transfer of firearms to law enforcement, or mechanisms for ensuring the cooperation of third-party transferees, other communities benefit from their problem-solving. As more communities develop safe and effective protocols for enforcing firearm prohibitions, we will see a strong uptick in communities quickly following suit.
None of the logistical hurdles to surrender are insurmountable, but they do require time, commitment and multiagency cooperation to be removed. At the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence and Firearms, we have seen firsthand that the legal and logistical hurdles that impede many communities from removing firearms from domestic abusers can be effectively overcome if the will to do so exists.
David W. Keck is the project director of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence and Firearms. He provides training and consultation around the country on implementation of laws prohibiting firearms possession by domestic offenders.