A two-week stretch in July was an unusually violent one for women in Philadelphia. In that period, five women were killed and three others wounded, a rarity in a city where at least 85 percent of homicides are of young men (and also by young men).
But what stood out even more was one terrifying fact for any woman who’s been the victim of domestic abuse: In three of the cases, their alleged assailant was a former intimate partner. (The other two are still unsolved.) In two of those murders, a gun was used.
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For anti-violence advocates, this is not surprising. Research shows that domestic violence victims are five times more likely to be murdered if their abuser has a gun. In fact, in the United States, women are more than twice as likely to be shot and killed by an intimate partner than they are to be murdered in any other way by a stranger.
In 2015 (the last year for which there are stats), about 2.5 percent of men murdered in the United States were killed by their wives or girlfriends, while 36 percent of women murdered—more than 1,000—were killed by their husbands or boyfriends. In Philadelphia the same year, 19 women were the victims of domestic violence homicides, a 5.7 percent increase over 2014, according to the Philadelphia Police Department.
Right now, the law prohibiting domestic abusers from possessing a gun applies only to husbands and ex-husbands, co-habitating partners, and those with children together. It does not apply to boyfriends.“People are getting married later, and childbirths have fallen,” Sorenson notes. “So fewer people are actually being protected.”
And that only accounts for those who are killed by partners with guns. Penn Professor of Social Policy Susan B. Sorenson, director of the Ortner Center on Violence Against Women, has studied gun violence and domestic violence for the last 30 years. She says just the presence or threat of a gun is an act terrifying enough to keep women from leaving their abuser, or filing charges against him. “If an abuser brandishes a gun, he doesn’t have to do anything else,” Sorenson says. “That threat is there.”
Now the state of Washington—already on the forefront of gun control laws—has taken one further step towards protecting women. Last month, it became the first state in the country to implement a law that requires police to alert victims of domestic violence when their attackers try to buy a gun.
Under federal law, anyone convicted of domestic violence, and many who have a final restraining order, are prohibited from possessing a firearm. And background checks should prevent those people from being able to—legally anyway—walk out of the store with a new gun. But the law in Washington is the first time that legislators have required the additional step of alerting victims, something women’s safety experts say can be crucial to keeping women from harm. “Telling women what law enforcement knows allows them to create a safety plan,” says Molly Callahan, legal center director for Philly’s Women Against Abuse.
This is not a full-proof solution—not by a long shot. Much of the menacing is committed with illegally-purchased guns, a particular problem in Philadelphia that would not be solved by keeping better track of those who submit to background checks. But there is some evidence that statutes that restrict access to firearms reduce intimate partner homicides. And laws like the one in Washington send a signal that law enforcement takes the issue of domestic violence seriously.
“This won’t eliminate all problems,” Sorenson says, “but it’s a statement from society that we want to protect you and want you to have all the available information that we as a state have so you too can protect yourself.”
Still, any law that tries to in any way put a damper on gun sales is not likely to get very far in Pennsylvania. (And state law essentially prohibits cities from making their own gun laws.) That’s why Callahan says Women Against Abuse has no plans to push for a statute similar to the one in Washington. “The [National Rifle Association] has such pushback, it’s not the most important area to spend our efforts,” Callahan says.
But there are other, equally-effective measures the state and federal government could and should enact to keep women safe from their armed abusers—starting with ensuring that protection from abuse orders are properly filed in the federal background check system. Before moving to Philadelphia, Sorenson was in California, where she conducted a study of abuse order records by county; she discovered that a huge percentage of orders were never filed. That means a background check might come up clean—allowing an abuser to purchase a gun.
Sorenson has not studied Pennsylvania counties—but says someone should. “The state police should audit it, see where there are gaps, and where there is additional training needed,” she says. Without that safeguard, it’s anyone’s guess as to how accurate the database is.
This week, Pennsylvania state Rep. Kate Klunk introduced legislation that would bring to Pennsylvania a Lethality Assessment Program, a commonly used tool among other states that gives officers training to assess how deadly a domestic violence situation is. The bill would allow police departments to apply for grants for training and equipment needed to combat domestic violence.
In addition, although state law already requires police to confiscate any weapons they have reason to believe were involved in a domestic abuse situation, there is no way to know how often that happens because there is no requirement for police departments to report how many guns they’ve seized, the way they do with other crimes.“We talk about guns found with drug seizures and other illegal operations,” Sorenson says. “It would be good, given the implications and safety of women, if people understood the extent to which guns are used to terrorize wives and partners.”
Perhaps the most important change is one that should be easy enough to enact—if, that is, politics doesn’t get in the way. Right now, the law prohibiting domestic abusers from possessing a gun applies only to husbands and ex-husbands, co-habitating partners, and those with children together. It does not apply to boyfriends, a so-called “boyfriend loophole.” Sorenson says this is because of when the law was written, about 20 years ago; but it reflects an outdated view of relationships. “People are getting married later, and childbirths have fallen,” Sorenson notes. “So fewer people are actually being protected.”
Research shows that domestic violence victims are five times more likely to be murdered if their abuser has a gun. In fact, in the United States, women are more than twice as likely to be shot and killed by an intimate partner than they are to be murdered in any other way by a stranger.
Advocates are gearing up to push for this language change when the Violence Against Women Act is up for reauthorization in 2018. And it seems simple enough. Then again, the last time VAWA came before Congress was the first time it also became a partisan fight—and it’s hard to say how hard the NRA will push back against even this seemingly sensible gun restriction.
What is clear, though, is that the fight is necessary, that all of these changes—including a law like in Washington—are all part of the solution.
“If we think there’s going to be one thing that solves the problem we’re being naive and very unfair,” Sorenson says. “We wouldn’t expect one thing to solve the drug problem, or traffic fatalities. If we hold out for that one thing to solve this problem, a whole lot of people will be harmed psychologically or even killed while we wait for that magical intervention.”
Click here to contact The Philadelphia Domestic Violence Hotline. The call is confidential and toll-free.Header Photo: Flickr