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This article was originally published in 2015. It was updated in 2023.
Gun safety laws have been shifting over the last several years, and domestic violence and gun control advocates are making inroads. Specifically, they’re passing laws designed to keep guns away from domestic abusers.
“Prohibiting abusers from accessing firearms is an area where we’ve seen momentum that continues to grow,” says Sarah Tofte, former research director for Everytown.org, an organization working to end gun violence.
Those protections are essential, because, according to Everytown, 70 women are shot and killed by a partner every month, and 4.5 million women in the United States have been threatened by an intimate partner with a gun. Additionally, a domestic violence survivor is five times more likely to be killed by an abuser when there’s access to a firearm.
Protections at the Federal Level
In 2022, a new federal law called the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (BSCA) was enacted. It bans people convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence from buying or possessing firearms for five years. Those crimes include using or attempting to use physical force or threatening to use a deadly weapon against a current or recent former dating partner.
The law offers some additional protection. Under the 1996 Lautenberg Amendment or Domestic Violence Gun Ban, which amends the Federal Gun Act of 1968, people who are convicted of a felony or domestic violence misdemeanor, or who are subject to a domestic violence protective order, are prohibited from possessing guns.
All of the states have to abide by these laws as well as their own laws. But only 17 states (up from nine in 2015) have a mandatory process that requires offenders to surrender their guns.
There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done. The Lautenberg Amendment only applies to current or former spouses and parents or guardians, not dating partners. The BSCA partially closes this “boyfriend loophole” and adds some protection to dating partners. And 31 states have passed their own laws to help close this loophole.
Seeing Progress in State Laws
States can pass their own laws that offer additional protections, and many are doing just that. According to Everytown, 52 new laws that help keep guns away from abusive partners have been passed in the last nine years. They cover domestic violence survivors in 29 states and Washington, DC.
Seventeen states require people convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors to give up their firearms. And in five states—California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New York—these records are submitted to the database used for background checks. That database is an essential protection for survivors. Since its introduction in 1998, it’s blocked the sale of more than a half million firearms to abusers.
Minnesota and Michigan both passed extreme risk laws in 2023. Those laws, sometimes called “Red Flag” laws, allow loved ones or law enforcement to temporarily prevent someone from accessing guns if they risk harming themselves or others.
Additionally, Illinois, Maryland, Washington, Colorado, Kansas, Hawaii, Vermont, New Mexico, North Carolina, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Florida, New York, and Washington DC all passed laws to reduce gun violence in 2023. More states are expected to join this list later this year, according to Everytown.
These Laws Are Saving Lives
“When abusers have access to firearms, a woman is five times more likely to be killed,” Tofte says. “We’re not only protecting women and children, we’re holding abusers accountable. These kinds of laws have an impact.”
Laws like these could help protect domestic violence survivors who face dangerous scenarios. These situations are all too common. April Ross was shot three times by her husband and left paralyzed. Janet Paulsen’s husband shot her six times, and she was dead on arrival at the hospital where heroic measures got her heart beating again. And Jacqueline Franchetti’s daughter Kyra was only two years old when Kyra’s father murdered her, shooting her twice in the back.
According to the Giffords Law Center, states that restrict access to guns for people who have active restraining orders related to domestic violence have seen intimate partner homicides involving guns drop by 13%. And states that require people to prove they turned in their guns in these situations see a 16% reduction.
While laws alone will not entirely solve the problem of abusers using guns against their victims, they are making a difference. For instance, in states requiring background checks for handgun sales, older research has found that women are 46 percent less likely to be shot to death by partners.
Support from Democrats and Republicans
What’s behind the passage of these laws? In some states, volunteers with organizations fighting for protection from gun violence, such as Moms Demand Action, are running for office—and winning. In fact, in the November 2022 elections, more than 125 volunteers won elections. The six who won in Minnesota flipped their state Senate, and the nine who won in Michigan gave the statehouse a gun sense majority.
And strong coalitions are promoting support for these laws to state legislators. “Local and state domestic violence organizations bring an incredible amount of expertise when they are testifying,” Tofte says.
They add their voices alongside organizations working for gun violence prevention and intimate partner homicide prevention. Law enforcement plays a role, too, since police often see the impact of domestic violence and how firearms elevate the threat of danger to partners, children, and law enforcement.
“When there’s a powerful coalition, it makes it that much harder for legislators to turn away or to come up with credible counterarguments for why abusers should retain access to firearms,” Tofte says.
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Tofte explains that public polling shows a lot of bipartisan support for restricting abusers’ access to firearms. So, when legislators address gun safety, they often focus on this issue. “The research is very strong that there’s a clear line between abusers’ access to firearms and deadly threats to women and children,” she says.
She expects legislators to continue to close the existing gaps since research underscores how much of an impact these laws have. “Restrictions are saving lives,” she says.
Protecting Children and the Public
“The risk firearms pose to intimate partners is real, and the data is also backing up ways in which abusers’ access to firearms is impacting children,” Tofte says. Gun-related deaths are the leading cause of death for American children and teens. And many of those deaths are linked to domestic violence, such as that of Greyson Kessler, who was shot and killed by his father in a murder-suicide.
Legislators are also paying attention to the connection between domestic violence and mass shootings, since in almost two-thirds of mass shootings, the shooter has a history of domestic violence or family violence. Stricter gun laws to keep domestic violence survivors safe would, in theory, help keep the public safer as well.
If you believe an abuser has a gun, contact your local law enforcement or visit our help page to find a shelter or program near you.
Is Your State Protecting Survivors?
How well does your state protect people who are facing domestic violence? Check this list for your state’s laws, and don’t hesitate to call your representatives and demand tougher laws.
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