USA: Disarm Domestic Violence: A matter of life or death

26 October 2009

In the USA, Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM) connects advocates who are working to end violence against women and their children. To mark the end of another successful DVAM, we are sharing our 'Disarm Domestic Violence' briefing on the US context.

Each year, the month of October is devoted to a range of activities conducted at the local, state, and national levels, and IANSA members have been involved across the country.

Also, groups such as The National Network to End Domestic Violence have made the link between firearms possession and domestic violence, and are working to understand the ongoing and emerging needs of domestic violence survivors. They have urged members of the US Congress to 'Enact sensible firearms laws to keep victims safe' and support legislation that restricts gun ownership by those convicted of domestic violence crimes.

Disarm Domestic Violence: A matter of life or death
IANSA Women's Network
30 October 2009

The home is traditionally considered to be a safe haven. To increase this sense of security, many families will choose to keep a gun in the house. Too often, this will be a fatal mistake. Statistics show that when a firearm is present, the risk of death is multiplied. Women are three times more likely to die violently if there is a firearm in the home. More shockingly, most firearms used in domestic homicides are legal.

Consider the tragic case of Meleanie Hain, the soccer mom in Lebanon, 80 miles west of Philadelphia, USA. Meleanie became a poster girl for the gun-rights movement last year when she fought for the right to carry a holstered pistol at her young daughter's soccer games. Other parents complained, prompting a sheriff to revoke her concealed-weapons permit, a decision a judge later overturned. Meleanie was subsequently shot dead by her husband, Scott, a parole officer. Friends and neighbours later confirmed that the couple had been having marital problems. Scott Hain shot his wife with a 9mm handgun, and killed himself with a shotgun. Police found several handguns, a shotgun, two rifles and several hundred rounds of ammunition in the Hains' home, as well as six spent shell casings in the kitchen. Clearly, the security of this family was not increased by keeping a well-stocked arsenal in the home.

The legal position on guns and domestic violence is complicated in many countries. But the laws in the US are fairly clear. Both the 1994 Violent Crime Control and the 2005 Law Enforcement Act state that individuals with restraining orders - including those relating to domestic violence - should not be allowed to buy or possess a firerarm. The Lautenberg Amendment and the Gun Ban for Individuals Convicted of a Misdemeanour Crime of Domestic Violence (2005) cover the same ground.

At the state level, there are examples of policies which separate batterers from their weapons. In particular, some states give law enforcement officials the authority to remove guns when responding to domestic violence incidents, and empower courts to order alleged batterers to surrender their firearms through civil protective orders. These policies show how the criminal justice system can play an active role in the removal of firearms from individuals who have been violent toward their intimate partners. Police also have the ability to remove guns in the absence of a conviction: an important complement to federal law.

If implemented effectively, these laws could make women safer. But because they are not enforced and implemented, women continue to be threatened, intimidated and killed in acts of family violence.

Sometimes, the legal failings are a matter of communication. Many courts who find defendants guilty of a domestic violence offence fail to send this information to the computerised index at the National Crime Information Center (NCIC). The NCIC data is available to Federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, and is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. An applicant's suitability to be entrusted with a firearm is usually carefully considered, and the NCIC consulted, before a license is granted. But if the NCIC is not informed that a man has a history of violence, he will be free to buy another gun. This is a fatal omission. Research shows that many men who kill their intimate partner have previously threatened or committed violence.

The USA is among a handful of countries with laws designed to protect women from armed domestic violence. That should be a matter of pride, but it means nothing unless judges, and the courts, use the powers they have to make women safer. This isn't just an academic question. Too often, when guns are brought into the home, it is a matter of life and death.