USA: Why Gun Control Laws Are a Feminist Issue

19 July 2010

The recent Supreme Court decision that expanded Second Amendment rights has left feminist groups silent, even though women are more likely to die of gun violence at the hands of domestic abusers.

In 2006, Steven Skoien was on probation in Wisconsin for his second misdemeanor domestic battery conviction when his probation officer found a shotgun in his pick-up truck. Skoien was sentenced to two years in prison for violating a federal law, known as the Lautenberg Amendment, which prohibits anyone convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor from possessing a firearm.

Skoien was one of about 170,000 domestic abusers affected by the Lautenberg Amendment. But in 2008, after the Supreme Court’s ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller, which established the Second Amendment as an individual right to bear arms and overturned Washington, D.C.‘s handgun ban, a three-judge panel voided Skoien’s conviction, ruling that the federal government had not proved that keeping guns from domestic violence convicts would make victims safer. On Tuesday, the entire Seventh Circuit reinstated Skoien’s conviction and affirmed the constitutionality of the Lautenberg Amendment.

Though Skoien’s conviction has been reinstated for now, his case and others [PDF] like it are the new frontier of an assault on gun regulation, the result of which will largely depend on who dominates the narrative on gun rights and regulation.

The Skoien decision was partly based on the connection between access to guns and domestic abuse. Even with the Lautenberg Amendment in effect, three to four women in the United States are murdered each day by current or former husbands or boyfriends. According to Women Against Gun Violence (WAGV), women murdered by an intimate partner are more likely to be killed with guns than by all other methods combined. Access to a firearm in an abusive relationship makes the woman eight times more likely to be murdered by her partner; handguns – the weapons considered in Heller and more recently McDonald vs. Chicago – are by far the most often used in intimate partner homicides.

Yet Heller, and now McDonald, could limit the government’s ability to keep guns from violent abusers. And despite this week’s apparent victory in Skoien, the case does not definitively limit McDonald’s impact. The standard of scrutiny to be applied to Second Amendment cases is yet to be determined; if strict scrutiny prevails, requiring gun laws to be “narrowly tailored” to a specific state interest, the government’s ability to defend gun laws will be greatly diminished.

As a follow-up to Heller, last month in McDonald v. Chicago, the Supreme Court expanded the individual right to bear arms through a process known as “incorporation.” Pre-McDonald, only federal gun laws were beholden to the Second Amendment. Now, thanks to the majority ruling in McDonald, all levels of government must respect the individual right to bear arms. While incorporation seems clear in the abstract, in practical terms, its application to the future of gun regulation is uncertain.

Associate Justice Samuel Alito assured in his majority opinion for McDonald that the ruling “does not cast doubt on such longstanding measures as ‘prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill.’ […] Incorporation does not imperil every law regulating firearms.” This language was strong enough to comfort those who want to regulate gun ownership, but vague enough to instill confidence in those who believe McDonald provides the legal framework for striking down the nation’s myriad gun laws.

In Skoien’s case, such an assurance may have helped reinstate his conviction. “[…] What regulations legislatures may establish were left open,” noted the 7th Circuit’s Skoien opinion in reference to McDonald. “The opinion is not a comprehensive code.” It is widely acknowledged that the gun lobby, headed up primarily by the National Rifle Association, will increase the number of legal challenges to gun laws across the country, leaving the true impact of McDonald to be determined through litigation in lower courts. It remains to be seen which laws are actually safe.

Violence prevention groups seem assuaged by the Court’s language in McDonald. “In terms of the legal landscape, right now, nothing has happened because domestic violence [gun bans] should be considered reasonable,” says Jennifer White, an attorney for the Family Violence Prevention Fund (FVPF).

“McDonald v. Chicago won’t affect current laws,” agrees Brian Namey, communications director for the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), an organization representing state and local coalitions against domestic violence at the federal level. Namey chalks up the relative silence on the part of domestic violence organizations on McDonald to this fact.

WAGV’s executive director Patti Koltnow chose not to release a statement after McDonald, believing her organization’s work to keep guns out of the hands of youth, convicts, felons, and the mentally ill will not be complicated by the Court’s ruling. All three organizations signed on to an amicus curiae brief in McDonald, urging the Court not to incorporate the Second Amendment.

But if domestic violence groups feel protected by McDonald, anti-regulation groups believe Heller and McDonald have opened the door to repealing many of the nation’s gun laws; and this is something the Skoien opinion [PDF] did not rule out. There will be more activity at the local level challenging local laws, says Herbert Titus, an attorney with Gun Owners of America, an organization that filed amicus curiae briefs in both McDonald and Skoien. Titus says the decision will ultimately strengthen the argument, as in Skoien, to throw out gun restrictions.

“Once [gun ownership] becomes understood as a right for all Americans,” Titus says, “it will make a tremendous difference.”

Michael Lieberman, the Wisconsin attorney representing Skoien, agrees. “The Supreme Court has made clear that the Second Amendment is a fundamental right. That’s hard to square with Skoien.”

But even if Titus and Lieberman are wrong in the long run – as they were on Skoien’sappeal – and White and other organizations that combat domestic violence are correct that gun laws pertaining to domestic abusers and felons will remain intact, women will likely still suffer as a result of Heller and McDonald. Ultimately, while the lives of many women rely on laws like the Lautenberg Amendment, expanded gun ownership will most likely have a human cost. “It’s logical,” White says. “Greater opportunity to obtain a firearm increases risk for women.” Additionally, not every abuser has a misdemeanor conviction that will prevent them from acquiring a firearm.

For this reason, gun control should be a feminist issue. Not only do gun control laws protect women, but current anti-gun regulation efforts are targeted specifically at laws that save women’s lives. There appears to be a lack of collaboration between feminists and advocates for sensible gun laws, despite the common interest the groups appear to share. “Many organizations that work to end violence against women acknowledge the gun problem,” says White. “Research is so overwhelming that many advocates feel strongly about this.”

And while some feminist blogs and news outlets were disturbed when NPR noted that the gun lobby was going after the Lautenberg Amendment, they did not seem worried by the fact that any increase in ownership will likely hurt women. Unlike the domestic violence groups which filed an amicus brief, feminist groups were conspicuously absent from the Heller and McDonald dockets. Despite having an interest in preventing violence against women (even a recent Planned Parenthood study showing women who seek abortions experience higher rates of domestic abuse), organizations that lead the women’s movement have remained silent on McDonald v. Chicago.

Namey stresses that gun control is very important to his organization; NNEDV is monitoring legal challenges to gun laws and is ready to weigh in if they feel Lautenberg or similar laws are in jeopardy. Still, many domestic violence groups feel protected by the wording in McDonald and have not spoken out. Between the reticence of these groups to condemn McDonald and apparent feminist disinterest in the issue, those who should be advocating for women are not taking on the gun issue nearly as vocally as the gun lobby’s loud jubilee these past few weeks.

Titus sees McDonald as much a political as a legal victory. Because the decision left so much room for the lower courts in litigating gun laws, he says, “the political significance should not be underestimated.” If the courts see little public sympathy for gun regulations, they are unlikely to take the unpopular stance of defending them.

Many liberals shrugged at the McDonald decision, since, given the Heller decision, it appeared that the McDonald case was loyal to precedent. Adam Serwer at The American Prospect noted, “The gun wars are pretty much over, and the gun rights side won.” But conservatives see a fight just beginning. McDonald may mark the end of one battle to define the Second Amendment, but the war over gun laws across the country just beginning.

And even though Skoienlost his case against the Lautenberg Amendment this time, it is only one case of many that will eventually decide the scope of Heller and McDonald. Luckily, White and Namey’s predictions about McDonald not affecting laws protecting abuse victims were correct as applied to Skoien, butif women’s advocates in both domestic violence and more general feminist organizations wait to see where the growing legal battles take us before speaking up, they may well miss a small window of time in which the national consensus on reasonable gun laws is still up for debate.

Pema Levy is a staff writer for Campus Progress and an editorial assistant at The American Prospect.

Originally published on 15 July 2010 at

Campus Progress