Time to disarm violent domestic abusers

15 June 2009

Federal and state laws prohibit convicted domestic-violence offenders from possessing firearms, but enforcement of those laws has been lax, write guest columnists Merril Cousin and Nan Stoops. They urge all law-enforcement agencies to follow proven strategies for getting guns out of the home.

In the first four months of this year, 13 women, men and children in our state were killed in domestic violence homicides. Nearly two-thirds of these victims (61 percent) were killed with a firearm.

They are not alone. Since 1997, abusers in Washington state used firearms to kill 232 victims, more than all other methods of domestic-violence homicide combined.

Guns make domestic violence more lethal. According to Johns Hopkins University Center for Gun Policy and Research, the presence of a gun at home is associated with a three times higher risk of homicide in that home. The risk is 20 times higher when there has been a history of domestic violence.

We have federal and state laws that prohibit convicted domestic-violence offenders and those subject to protective orders from possessing firearms. But good laws don't always translate into good practice. There are significant gaps in the enforcement of these laws.

The Washington State Domestic Violence Fatality Review has studied numerous homicides by abusers who used guns they possessed illegally. For the most part, our legal system relies on violent abusers to turn in their own guns if it is illegal to have them. Clearly, this strategy is not working. Effective laws require consistent and proactive enforcement.

There are critical steps we can take at the federal, local and individual levels.

Federal law-enforcement officials should prioritize the arrest and prosecution of individuals who violate federal firearm laws.

Local courts and police departments should enforce state laws. Judges should routinely order abusers to surrender their firearms and law-enforcement agencies should take the firearms and have a place to store them.

Some law-enforcement agencies and courts in Washington have developed policies and protocols to get illegally owned guns out of the hands of domestic violence abusers. They have shown us that good laws can be turned into effective practice, and we applaud their efforts. We ask that every jurisdiction in our state follow this example.

As individuals, we should educate ourselves about domestic violence, the increased risk of homicide when there are guns at home, and where to turn for help.

Anyone can call the Washington State Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-562-6025 for information, support, and to get connected with a local domestic-violence program. If someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, ask about guns in the home. Call the domestic-violence hotline to talk about planning for safety.

Domestic violence is a complex issue with no simple answers, but it is simple for each of us to play a role in ending it. Taking action today could save a life tomorrow.

Merril Cousin is the executive director of the King County Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Nan Stoops is the executive director of the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

The Seattle Times