State Lawmakers Target Guns and Domestic Abusers

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Protest in Washington, D.C., for gun control.

Credit: Elvert Barnes on Flickr, under Creative Commons

Protest in Washington, D.C., for gun control.

(WOMENSENEWS)–When President Barack Obama came on national television to respond to the June 17 massacre of nine worshippers at a church in Charleston, S.C., he expressed angry resignation at the failure of the Congress to pass legislation to keep deadly weapons out of the hands of dangerous individuals.

And when Mother Jones, in the wake of that attack, released its latest map of deadly mass shootings in the United States, it tweeted "we hate updating our database of mass shootings, again and again."

But one light at the end of the tunnel surrounding the prospects of gun control could come from a crossover pressure group: state lawmakers who in the past year or so have been focused on doing something about the high rate at which women are killed by intimate partners.

Nearly one-third of all women murdered in recent years have been killed by current or former intimate partners, reports the Bureau of Justice.

Gun control advocates are hopeful that the massacre at Emanuel African-Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston will stimulate action by the states, particularly those like South Carolina, which has weak gun laws.

From 2002 to 2011, 6,132 people–one every 12 hours–were killed in South Carolina, reports the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which tracks legislation in 50 states

In 2012, South Carolina ranked second to Alaska in the nation on the rate of women killed by men and nearly double the national average of one woman killed per 100,000 women. Seventy-one percent of the killings of women in South Carolina involved guns, compared to 52 percent in the nation.

Two months before the Charleston shooting, the South Carolina House passed a bill on April 14 that includes a provision giving judges and prosecutors leeway in pleading out domestic violence cases as assault and battery, apparently in response to pro-gun lobbyists. The South Carolina Crime Victims Council criticized the measure because the new law would not bar domestic violence offenders from possessing guns.

The state also received an F on the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence‘s 2014 state scorecard. In addition to permitting guns in bars, South Carolina does not require background checks on private sales, require reporting of mental health information or allow law enforcement the discretion to deny concealed handgun permits.

Unlike Congress, which views gun control through the lens of Constitutional rights, state legislators are concerned about ensuring the safety of family and friends.

"State legislators recognize that if we don’t step up to the plate, nobody will," said Missouri State Rep. Stacey Newman, a member of the New York-based American State Legislators for Gun Violence Prevention, in a phone interview conducted before the Charleston shooting. "Founded in December, our bipartisan group includes 200 female and male legislators from 50 states who will be developing and passing legislation to reduce access to guns for those who commit certain crimes like domestic violence and for those who are experiencing mental health problems that make access to guns dangerous."

Loopholes in Federal Law

Newman, a Democrat, said a federal law adopted in 1996 has saved thousands of lives. Commonly called the Lautenberg Amendment, after its sponsor the late Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, the law prohibits the purchase of firearms and ammunition by people convicted of misdemeanors for domestic violence or those who are subject to certain domestic violence protection orders.

By July 31, 2014, over 109,000 people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence crimes had been denied permits. The FBI reported this as the third most common reason for rejecting applicants.

However, Newman added, many perpetrators fall outside the federal law’s provisions. Many domestic violence cases never go to trial or result in a conviction. And survivors of dating relationships and stalkers fall outside the law’s scope because of antiquated definitions of relationships. People convicted of domestic violence offenses against partners they have never been married to, cohabited with or had a child with may possess guns.

This is a dangerous oversight: Between 2003 and 2012, more nonfatal violence was committed against women by current or former dating partners (39 percent) than current or former spouses (25 percent), the Bureau of Justice reports.

Federal law also excludes stalking, as the assumption is that stalking offenses do not necessarily include violence or even personal contact because these incidents may be conducted through the mail, online or by telephone.

The increasing number of female legislators has helped spark passage of gun control measures, said New Jersey State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat, in a phone interview.

Women now hold 24 percent of the 7,383 seats in state legislatures, reports the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

"Female legislators view gun control laws as a public health and safety issue," said Weinberg, majority leader of the New Jersey State Senate. "I have been able to get gun legislation aimed at domestic violence perpetrators passed by emphasizing that it prevents domestic incidents from turning into bloodbaths that kill the victim, other family members and innocent bystanders."

Weinberg said that joining forces with national organizations like Americans for Responsible Solutions, which was founded by former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, has helped overcome the opposition of the 5-million member National Rifle Association, which maintains a muscular lobbying effort at the state level.

Twenty states have introduced bills to fill loopholes in the Lautenberg Amendment, which leaves women vulnerable, finds a March 30 analysis by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

7 Laws Passed in 2014

"In 2013, many advocates felt dispirited after Congress failed to overhaul the nation’s gun laws in response to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School," said Lindsey Zwicker, a staff attorney at the nonprofit center.

But thanks to the growing awareness of the link between domestic violence and guns, seven states passed laws in 2014, she said in a phone interview.

In the past, the NRA has torpedoed bills in state legislatures by claiming that gun control proponents are determined to take their Second Amendment rights away.

Giffords, who was critically wounded at a meeting of constituents near Tucson, Ariz., in 2010, joined Weinberg at a roundtable event at the New Jersey Statehouse March 18 where she argued that an integral part of protecting the Second Amendment is ensuring that the right to bear arms is exercised responsibly. Like Giffords, over 49,000 of the 81,000-member Americans for Responsible Solutions, are gun owners.

She also urged women to take the lead in overhauling the nation’s gun laws by adding non-cohabitating dating partners and convicted stalkers to the list of domestic abusers who cannot legally purchase a gun.

"In 2014, only 10 states barred those who abuse someone they were dating from purchasing a gun if they did not live together or have a child together," said Zwicker of the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. "This is a serious loophole. In 2008, individuals killed by current dating partners made up almost half of all spouse and non-dating partner homicides."

One in six women is stalked at some point in their lives, so more states need to protect women against stalkers, Zwicker added. Only nine states now prohibit individuals convinced of misdemeanor stalking from obtaining guns.

"These laws will save many lives," Zwicker predicted. "One study of female murder victims in 10 cities found that 76 percent of women murdered by their intimate partners were stalked during the year before the murders."

Modeled after Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which emphasized its opposition to drunk driving rather than the drivers themselves, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America has also helped build support for laws that will keep guns out of the hands of domestic violence abusers and other dangerous people.

The group is part of Every Town for Gun Safety, an umbrella organization founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg who pledged $50 million in 2014 to make the political climate more supportive of gun control.

Law Enforcement Officers’ Support

Support by law enforcement officers has also buttressed advocates’ public safety arguments. In Minnesota, State Rep. Dan Schoen, a police officer and paramedic, spearheaded the passage of a law that takes all firearms, including rifles, away from stalkers and abusers.

A member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, Schoen won the support of GOP Gov. Mark Dayton, a devoted gun owner, and Republican legislators, who had received campaign support from pro-gun groups.

Although Democrats have proposed most of the bills, Republican state legislators such as Kansas State Sen. Barbara Bollier, a retired physician, are doing so too. Republican governors such as Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Rick Snyder of Michigan have also supported the measures as a means of ensuring public protection.

Pro-gun groups have used a variety of strategies to oppose the measures. In California and New Jersey, for instance, they have claimed that federal law is sufficient to protect victims. In other states such as Washington and South Carolina, the NRA has lobbied legislators to water down bills.

The original bill in Washington called for individuals served with restraining orders to surrender their guns to government officers or firearm dealers; now they can give the firearms to their friends.

But mostly, the gun lobby has concentrated on passing legislation that would make it easier for everyone to carry guns. Kansas became the fifth state April 20, along with Alaska, Arizona, Vermont and Wyoming, to allow loaded guns to be carried in public without a permit.

Gun control proponents such as Weinberg, the New Jersey state senator, remain optimistic that the movement to keep guns out of the hands of domestic violence abusers will succeed.

"Critics told me when I started working on gun control 10 years ago that I would never get any bills passed, but now New Jersey has some of the nation’s strongest laws," she said. "In the long run, we will triumph because these measures save lives."

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