No, Domestic Abusers Can't Have Guns, SCOTUS Rules

Update: The Supreme Court on Monday delivered a victory to groups working to curb domestic violence, ruling that states can ban people convicted of reckless domestic assaults from future gun ownership. The court ruled 6-2 against two Maine men who argued that they should not be subject to the ban because of the nature of their misdemeanor abuse charges, The Associated Press reports. Ahead, an in-depth look at the issue of domestic violence and gun access.

This story was originally published on April 4, 2016.
Photo: Courtesy of Theresa O'Rourke.
Pictured: Theresa O'Rourke (left) and Jitka Vesel.
The beginning of Jitka Vesel's story is familiar. Back in 2008, she briefly dated a man she met online. When she decided they didn't have a connection, she broke it off.

That's when Dmitry Smirnov began stalking her.

For three years, Smirnov pursued Vesel. She reported the harassment, changed her phone number, cut off contact with her stalker — even moved. In 2011, Smirnov followed Vesel to the parking lot of her workplace. He killed her, shooting her 12 times as she tried to escape.

“She did all the things that we’re told do, all the things that are supposed to make us safe. But what didn’t keep her safe was the massive loophole that allows people to buy guns with no background checks and with no questions asked,” Theresa O'Rourke, a friend of Vesel's who is now a gun control advocate, said.

"Gun violence is a women's issue."

Theresa O'Rourke, Everytown Survivor Network
Tragedies like Vesel's are an example of the danger that people — often women — can face from the deadly combination of threatening relationships and firearms. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three women and one in four men will experience some form of intimate partner violence in their lifetime. And while domestic abusers have been prohibited by federal law from owning guns since 1996, there are limitations to how the crime is defined. Under the law, abusers are a current or former spouse, parent or guardian; a person a victim shares a child with, or a person who currently or has in the past lived with a victim.

That leaves out boyfriends and girlfriends, failed dates, friends, or crushes — even stalkers, as it excludes those who have only a non-violent misdemeanor offense.

On top of this, even people with a legally documented history of abuse can still buy a gun from a private seller — like many of those who sell online — who aren't obligated to run background checks.

That's how Smirnov got his gun. He purchased a .40-caliber handgun on the internet without a background check — in fact, prosecutors alleged later, the seller had charged him an extra $200, knowing that Smirnov's immigration status meant he wouldn't be able to buy a firearm legally.

“Closing these loopholes, the boyfriend loophole, the private seller loophole, is so important to save women’s lives. Gun violence is a women’s issue,” O’Rourke said.

"Anyone who attempts or threatens violence against a loved one has demonstrated that he or she poses an unacceptable risk, and should be prohibited from possessing firearms."

Former Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ)
According to statistics from Everytown for Gun Safety's campaign Singled Out, which looks at how single females are affected by gun laws, women in the U.S. are 11 times more likely to be murdered with guns than those in other high-income countries. The vast majority of intimate partner homicides — two-thirds — are committed with guns. And when there is a gun present in an abusive household, the risk of a victim dying goes up 500%.

Of women who are murdered, one in three are killed by their intimate partners, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. And the threat isn't limited only to those in a relationship with an abuser — 20% of those killed in domestic-violence related attacks aren't involved with their killer, but rather are family, friends, or bystanders.

Even having a high prevalence of guns in a state can be enough to threaten women's safety. In 2002, a study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that women who lived in states with a high number of guns per capita were almost five times as likely to be victims of gun homicide. "Overall, the relationship between guns and violent death among women persisted at both the state and the regional level, in virtually every age group, and even after controlling for state-level poverty and urbanization," the study found.

"That would be a good place to start. To enforce the laws we have."

Carrie Lightfoot, The Well Armed Woman
Carrie Lightfoot has a different approach to guns and safety. As a single mother living in Arizona, escaping an abusive relationship, she was concerned about self-protection. Owning a gun made her feel “prepared,” she said. Now she runs The Well Armed Woman, a group that teaches women to use and manage guns.

"We really focus on three things, training, educating, and empowering," she told Refinery29 by phone. Many of the women she sees have a history of domestic abuse, and Lightfoot believes that owning and knowing how to use a gun empowers them. She agrees that the best way to protect women is to strengthen laws about domestic abuse and enforce laws already on the books about gun access.

“I think that people who don’t have the right to own a firearm shouldn’t be able to access one,” she said, adding that the background check system isn't fully implemented. The National Rifle Association did not return a request for comment on this story by the time of publication.

Even when the system is used, there's not a guarantee that a criminal history would even be in a database. In 2005, the Bureau of Justice found that in more than half of states, between 10% and 50% of criminal cases in the system had no outcome recorded, enabling many of those with prohibitive records to slip through the cracks. The bureau listed multiple failures that led to this, including a backlog of records to enter as well as the states' failure to make sure their system was complete.

"There's this idea that minor domestic violence isn’t really that big a deal. And we’re saying, ‘No. It is a big deal.’"

Kiersten Stewart, Futures Without Violence
And it's possible that laws keeping guns out of the hands of abusers are about to get looser. In a case before the Supreme Court this term, Voisine v. United States, two convicted domestic abusers are challenging the law that forbids them from owning guns, arguing that their crimes technically don't qualify as domestic assault. If the court rules in favor of them, it would narrow the definition of domestic abuse, and undermine the laws preventing those with violent histories from getting guns.

"What’s at stake in this case is the recognition of the seriousness of domestic violence, of the dangers of guns in the context of domestic violence," said Kiersten Stewart, the director of public policy for Futures Without Violence. The group, which fights abuse in relationships, filed a brief in the case urging the court to decide against Voisine. Stewart told Refinery29 by phone that she worries that this case will encourage the perception of domestic violence as a minor crime.

"The argument that the petitioners are making [is] that the law calls for physical force, and so if it’s not seriously physically violent, then that shouldn’t count," she said. "A victim of domestic violence will tell you that if her abuser slashes her tires, cuts up her credit card, and threatens her family — those are all very real things that are just as terrifying, often, as physical violence."

For Vesel, even though her stalker frightened her so badly that she moved away, the law couldn't protect her.

“Women need to be aware of how these laws disproportionately affect them and their safety," O’Rourke says. She now works with the Everytown Survivor Network to share her friend’s story, in an effort to bring awareness to the dangers presented by loopholes like the one that allowed Vesel’s killer to buy a gun. "We talk about gun violence in the abstract, and it’s not an abstract issue."

“Had [Smirnov] needed to go to a federally licensed dealer, he would never have passed a background check. He never would’ve gotten a gun, and Jitka would be alive."

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