Next week, Washington will become the first state to let victims of domestic violence know when their abuser tries to purchase a gun. The law is a huge step forward for victims of domestic violence, given that current laws intended to protect victims often fall short.
The law is part of a broader bill that requires sellers to alert the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs after someone fails a background check. If someone fails a background check, they must be plugged into a police database as well as a notification system for all victims of domestic violence or sexual violence who have court protections. The bill also sets up a grant for investigations into any person who attempts to illegally buy a gun.
“We’ve been advocating for years and years for laws like this,” said Julie Owens, an expert consultant on domestic violence matters who has worked with the Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime Training and Technical Assistance Center and the Health and Human Services’ National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Center.
There is no question that guns contribute to more intimate partner homicides. Research shows that domestic violence victims are five times more likely to be murdered if an abuser has access to a firearm. The violence also affects people who associate with the domestic violence victim, like family members, friends, and new romantic partners. In 70 percent of cases involving deaths of these collateral victims, they were killed with guns. The availability of a database also helps police, since they often encounter gun violence when responding to domestic disputes.
Owens, who is a survivor of domestic violence herself, said she survived her attack because her abuser did not have a gun.
“My father and I were stabbed. If he had a gun instead of a knife, we would be dead,” Owens said. “No question about it. Because the intention was there. The effort was there. The premeditation was there. But he did not have the weapon.”
A 2010 study from the journal Injury Prevention looking at state statutes that restricted people with domestic violence restraining orders from getting their hands on guns, including states that allowed warrentless arrests after violating orders, found a reduction in murders of intimate partners.
These state laws are necessary because there are loopholes to current laws intended to protect victims. Although federal law does not allow anyone convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence to purchase or possess a firearm, dating partners are not covered by federal prohibitions, unless they have a child in common with the victim or were co-habitating. This is commonly known as the “boyfriend loophole.”
In 2014, Jacquelyn Campbell, a professor at John Hopkins University, who has worked on over 230 publications on violence and health outcomes, testified to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary that current federal firearm prohibitions “ignore the perpetrators of a large and growing share of intimate partner homicides.”
Washington has been a leader in gun control legislation, and it was the first state to require universal background checks. The most recent law, however, is a huge step to better protect domestic violence survivors, Owens said, because it’s far easier to get a restraining order than to get an abuser convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.
“They may get arrested, but they get it knocked down to a lesser charge or they don’t get convicted because they make some deal so having it exclusively apply to someone who is convicted is a problem in and of itself,” Owens said.
The notification process also helps police and survivors put together a plan to ensure the survivors are safe. Police can refer survivors to a local domestic violence program, where they can create a personalized safety plan. Sometimes a plan will include keeping survivors safe at work, so they can get back and forth to work without worrying about running into an abuser.
“It puts the police in a position to partner with the victims more instead of just making the arrest and it’s over or responding and it’s over,” Owens said. “There is more responsibility to do that. Instead of saying well, you’re on your own now. You have a restraining order. Good luck.”