Every time I read about a domestic violence homicide, two thoughts immediately come to mind—this was predictable and preventable. Abusers who perpetrate a domestic violence homicide have often been violent in their past, and the predictability of these horrific acts should, in theory, allow for intervention before the homicide occurs. Yet domestic violence and gun violence remain common in the US.
In a country with more guns than people, it is not all that surprising that we have the highest rate of gun injury and mortality compared to other high-income countries. Provisional Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data from 2021 analyzed by my colleagues at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions found that there were 48,832 people killed by guns in the US in 2021—a record number of gun deaths and 3,600 more deaths than in 2020, the previous record high. Since the start of the pandemic, Americans have purchased firearms in record numbers at a time of heightened economic and social unrest.
…we know that an estimated 60 women are shot and killed each month by an intimate partner.
When we look at the data, we see that the homicide and suicide crises in the US are driven almost exclusively by guns. Our domestic violence crisis is no different. Though accurate and timely data on domestic violence in the US is more challenging to obtain than data on overall gun deaths—a problem that must be addressed by our lawmakers—we know that an estimated 60 women are shot and killed each month by an intimate partner. We also know that guns are often used to inflict significant emotional and psychological harm, and that the mere presence of a gun can do so regardless of whether the weapon is discharged. Data show that millions of people, mostly women, have been threatened with a gun or shot/shot at by an intimate partner.
As a public health researcher and advocate, I know that there are evidence-based policies to prevent domestic violence and gun violence. Using the public health approach to prevent gun violence and domestic violence means going upstream to prevent violence instead of being reactionary. This approach involves four key steps: 1) define and monitor the problem, 2) identify risk and protective factors, 3) develop and test prevention strategies, and 4) ensure widespread adoption of evidence-based strategies. This approach has been used to mitigate other public health crises, including smoking-related deaths, motor vehicle injuries, and various diseases, and we can and should follow the same approach to prevent domestic violence. In this blog post, I outline five evidence-based policies that, if equitably and efficiently implemented, can prevent domestic violence.
Domestic Violence Protection Orders with Firearm Removal
Domestic violence protection orders (DVPOs) have existed for decades in the US. DVPOs, which are orders issued by a court to protect victims of abuse, offer critical protections for victims and survivors of domestic violence, including, depending on the state, firearm removal components. DVPOs often include protections such as stay-away orders, no-contact orders, and financial assistance. Data show that DVPOs are associated with the most significant reductions in intimate partner homicide (IPH), by firearm and other means, when they apply to dating partners (13 percent reduction in IPH), include temporary orders in addition to final orders (13 percent reduction), and require firearm removal (12 percent reduction). Unfortunately, many states do not include these protections in their DVPOs and there is no federal DVPO. States without these critical protections should update their protection orders to include clear statutory language about firearm removal to further protect victims and survivors of domestic violence.
Extreme Risk Protection Orders
Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs) are civil orders modeled off DVPOs. These laws, however, differ in several ways. First, ERPOs exist in 19 states and the District of Columbia, though ERPO legislation has been introduced in nearly every state. Second, ERPOs only address access to firearms and therefore do not include many of the critical domestic violence protections that exist in DVPOs. As such, they may not be the best tool available to address domestic violence. However, ERPOs fill a critical gap in many states’ laws in that they allow for temporary firearm removal when an individual is at risk of suicide or interpersonal violence but has not yet done something that would otherwise prohibit the individual from firearm ownership. Third, ERPO petitioners differ from those who can petition for a DVPO. All states with an ERPO law allow law enforcement to petition for the order, and most allow family and household members to petition. Law enforcement cannot petition for a DVPO. A growing number of states have also added healthcare providers to their list of petitioners. As states consider the use of ERPOs for domestic violence situations, it is critical to prioritize survivor autonomy. While having additional petitioners for ERPOs is beneficial in several situations, it could potentially exacerbate a domestic violence situation if the order is initiated by someone other than the survivor.
As states consider the use of ERPOs for domestic violence situations, it is critical to prioritize survivor autonomy.
The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which was signed into law by President Biden on June 25, 2022, provides critical protections to victims and survivors of domestic violence. Still, legislative action to address the dating partner loophole did not go far enough. Prior to the signing of the Safer Communities Act, only domestic abusers who were married to, lived with, or had a child with their partner were prohibited from purchasing and possessing firearms under federal law. The new federal law extended the prohibition to abusive dating partners. However, there is still a gap in this legislation since it does not require firearm removal from individuals subject to DVPOs. Federal law should mirror that of the states who have permanently closed this loophole.
Past violence is the best predictor of future violence. Individuals with histories of domestic violence are at a heightened risk of perpetrating domestic violence in the future, but research also shows that there are significant reductions (23 percent) in intimate partner homicide when individuals with nonspecific violent misdemeanors are prohibited from accessing firearms. While federal and many state laws prohibit individuals convicted of misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence from accessing firearms, more violent individuals can be prohibited from accessing firearms if state firearm restrictions extend to individuals convicted of all violent misdemeanors. Some states, including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey, have already taken steps to prevent violent individuals from accessing firearms.
…research also shows that there are significant reductions (23 percent) in intimate partner homicide when individuals with nonspecific violent misdemeanors are prohibited from accessing firearms.
Stalking is a well-known predictor of domestic violence homicide. Data show that 76 percent of femicide victims and 85 percent of attempted femicide victims experienced stalking in the year leading up to their homicide or attempted homicide. Several states, including New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island, have prohibited firearms access for individuals convicted of stalking offenses, and federal law says that individuals with felony stalking offenses are prohibited from having guns, yet significant gaps in both federal and state law allow individuals with misdemeanor stalking offenses to keep their firearms. Stalking must be viewed as the homicide risk factor that it is, and state and federal law should prohibit individuals with histories of stalking from having guns.
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Where Do We Go from Here?
Domestic Violence Awareness Month provides a good opportunity to shine a light on the public health epidemic of domestic violence, but we must continue to address domestic violence throughout the year. Above, I outlined five key policies that state governments and the federal government should adopt to protect victims and survivors of domestic violence. In addition to policy, critical to the public health approach is having timely and accurate data on domestic violence injuries and fatalities. Without this, we cannot fully understand the problem or respond to it in real time. The CDC has done a better job in recent months of releasing more timely provisional data on mortality statistics in the US, yet there is still a dearth of such data as it relates to domestic violence fatalities specifically.
As a mayoral appointee on the District of Columbia’s Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board, I review cases on domestic violence fatalities in DC and identify ways in which these tragedies can be prevented in the District in the future. We are able to do this in part because of the District’s robust and timely domestic violence fatality data collection. Other cities across the country should follow this process and establish their own domestic violence fatality review boards to review domestic violence homicides in their cities and create actionable recommendations to local governments to prevent them.
We have the tools we need to prevent domestic violence. The longer we wait to adopt them, the more people will die.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lisa Geller is the director of state affairs at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions.