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October 14, 2009

Q&A: Domestic Violence and Guns

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. A new report by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health analyzes laws in the United States intended to prevent the use of guns in domestic violence cases. Shannon Frattaroli, PhD, MPH, author of the report and assistant professor in the Bloomberg School’s Department of Health Policy and Management where she is affiliated with the Center for Gun Policy and Research, discussed her findings with Tim Parsons, director of Public Affairs.

How serious of a problem is domestic violence here in the U.S.?

Answer: It’s a very serious problem. About a quarter of women, best estimates suggest, report having been abused at one point in their life. If you look at the most serious form of abuse—those incidents that result in death—we know that more than half of intimate partner homicides involve guns. Domestic violence is a big chunk of the homicide picture, and then it’s also a very prevalent problem within the population overall.

What role do guns play in domestic violence?

Answer: We know that an abuser’s access to guns is an important factor in determining whether a violent incident will result in death. Studies have shown that intimate partner assaults with a gun are three times more likely to result in homicide than those involving a knife and 23 times more likely to result in death than those involving bodily force alone. It’s an important problem, but one that we can do something about as the laws on the books suggest.

You recently authored a report examining the nation’s guns laws related to domestic violence issues. What did you find?

Answer: What we did with this report was to select two types of state-level laws that focus on guns and domestic violence. We first looked at laws that allow courts issuing protective orders to order batterers to surrender their firearms as a term of the protective order. We know from our research that those laws are present in 20 states, as well as Washington, D.C. We also looked at laws that allow police responding to domestic violence calls to remove guns from the scene. Again from our work we know that these kinds of laws exist in about 18 states.

The reason we selected those particular laws to look at is important. Coming from a public health perspective, we’re always interested in the preventive potential. How can we intervene to prevent something from happening? When we look at the domestic violence problem we know that this is a pervasive problem and we know that guns are a big risk factor for fatal abuse. So if we think about the ways that we can intervene in those violent relationships and remove that risk of homicide, then that’s a really good place to intervene. Specifically, with these laws, we don’t have to wait for something bad to happen with the gun. If we can intervene at the point when the system becomes aware that there’s a problem and intervene on the gun side, then presumably we can affect or prevent more severe violence from occurring down the line.

Do we know how effective these measures are at preventing domestic violence deaths?

Answer: Unfortunately the issue of domestic violence and guns has received minimal attention in the research literature. There are some good studies that have been done to identify and quantify the risk. There also have been some well-designed studies to describe those risks, but we’ve seen very few studies that evaluate the impacts of these laws.

One study found an eight percent reduction in homicides in states that have laws that allow guns to be removed as part of the protective order process. That’s not to say that the court order provision is a more effective provision than the provisions that allow police to remove the guns, we just haven’t done any evaluations of that police authority.

From work that we’ve done here at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, we suspect that these laws are not always being enforced systematically or even well. We did some early work when Maryland’s laws first came into effect on these two issues, and we were surprised to see the lack of systematic implementation and enforcement of these laws. I think there’s a real opportunity for improvement with regard to making these laws more than just words on paper but actually turning them into real actions that can translate into a safer environment for women at home.

My colleague Daniel Webster (co-director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research) and I are involved in an initiative in California. The state has a pilot project to create a system to fully implement and enforce the gun provisions of domestic violence restraining orders. We know from this process that there’s a fair amount of work involved in training law enforcement personnel to do this work well, and to put systems in place to implement and enforce these laws to their fullest potential.

What else have you learned from putting together your report?

Answer: We need to pay careful attention to the details of these laws. While 20 states have laws on the books allowing judges to order guns surrendered as part of a protective order process, there is a lot of variation in the details. For example, some laws will give judges the authority to remove a gun, but that authority is at the discretion of the judge to use. Other states will opt to legislate this authority as mandatory, so any time a judge issues an order for an abuser to stay away from a protected party they also must require that that person surrender his or her gun. That’s an important difference that on the surface we wouldn’t have known about had we not done this review.

We’ve heard anecdotally that there are some judges who don’t believe that domestic violence is a serious problem, and that they don’t support laws that require abusers to surrender their firearms. So when you have a mandatory provision of the law, then that just removes that influence that is counter to the intent of the law and the law can be more universally enforced.

Another example of the importance of details is that some laws require that there be some use of the gun in the abuse (discharging the weapon, or pointing it at the victim) in order for the judge to be able to order it surrendered. Again, because we’re coming at this from a public health perspective, we don’t want to wait for the gun to be pointed at the protected party or discharged before the court can order it surrendered.

One more example of the importance of these details: some states leave that surrender authority on the shoulders of the gun owner. Other state laws specify that law enforcement is responsible for removing the gun, which requires that law enforcement be engaged in the surrender process. These little nuances are important to appreciate when you look at these types of laws.

It would seem that these nuances could significantly impact how successful a particular law is going to be at preventing violence.

Answer: Absolutely. It’s the difference between whether or not someone is going to walk out of a courthouse with an order that says you must surrender your firearms and someone who doesn’t. In a very real way that can influence what kind of interactions the responding party will have with the protected party and whether or not they are armed in those interactions. However, I’m not sure that we are paying enough attention to these kinds of nuances. I think our report really calls attention to these differences, and it does so in a way that hopefully will be useful to policymakers and advocates who are interested in this issue.

On October 1, some new domestic violence provisions went into effect in Maryland. What’s changed?

Answer: A couple of new Maryland laws went into effect that have the potential to greatly strengthen the ability of law enforcement to assist protected parties as they take steps to safeguard themselves  from gun abuse by their batterers. Under Maryland law, judges must order guns removed when issuing protective orders. It’s no longer a discretionary authority of the bench. Secondly, judges now have the discretion to order guns surrendered as part of the temporary phase of the protective order process. Maryland, like most states, issues protective orders in two stages. First, there’s a temporary stage, which in Maryland lasts for seven days, where a victim can go before the judge and ask for an order to be issued without the respondent or the batterer being present. Now judges can order firearms to be surrendered during this initial stage, in addition to ordering respondents to move out of their  house or stay away from the protected party. These are important improvements to Maryland law that have long been advocated by the state’s domestic violence community. This is really something to celebrate this month.

Download report

Public Affairs media contact for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Tim Parsons at 410-955-7619 or tmparson@jhsph.edu

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