Utilize all Legal Means to Restrict Abuser Access to Firearms
Consistent strides have been made by stakeholders to address the issue of domestic violence in Georgia. But as a state, we have failed to comprehensively address the fundamental issue that would reduce the number of deaths in our communities: abuser access to firearms.
Despite the often convoluted or complex nature of this issue, both best practices and recognized experts in the field view firearms access as the impact issue which, if addressed, would dramatically reduce the rate of domestic violence-related deaths. Individual communities have implemented recommendations to address the issue, but Georgia has failed to meaningfully address firearms access to abusers on a statewide level.
Intimate partner violence and firearms are a deadly combination. From 2010–2017, at least 758 Georgians died by firearm in domestic violence-related incidents. In fact, a gunshot was the cause of death in 73 percent of all known domestic violence-related deaths statewide during that time.
In cases reviewed by the Project since 2004, firearms were also the leading cause of death for victims. Fifty-nine percent of victims in reviewed cases were killed by firearms, outnumbering all other means combined.
Georgia data is not unique in relaying the significant weight of the firearms problem. In an average month in the United States, 50 women are shot to death by their intimate partners (Everytown for Gun Safety, 2018). Many more are injured in our country; nearly 1 million women alive today have been shot, or shot at, by an intimate partner (Everytown for Gun Safety, 2018).
It has also been well established that the use of a firearm to control or intimidate a victim is a common tactic of abuse, even on occasions when there is no pull of the trigger. An abuser simply having access to a firearm can result in a victim being afraid and feeling less safe (Zeoli, 2017; Sorenson & Wiebe, 2004), because the gun “could be used on them at any time” (Zeoli, 2017). In a national study which surveyed 417 women in domestic violence shelters, researchers found roughly 39 percent reported their most recent partner owned a gun during their relationship (Sorenson & Wiebe, 2004). Of those whose partner owned a gun, 67 percent reported the gun made them feel less safe. If the gun was located inside the home, the number of victims who indicated they felt less safe grew to 79 percent.
Feeling less safe is not surprising, when considering that nearly two-thirds of victims whose abuser had a gun in the home reported their partner had used guns to scare, threaten, or harm them (Sorenson & Wiebe, 2004). There is a high correlation between abusers owning a gun and using it to threaten an intimate partner, typically in one of the following ways (Klein, 2006):
- threatening to shoot the victim
- cleaning, holding or loading the gun during an argument
- threatening to shoot a person or pet the victim cares about
- firing a gun during an argument with the victim
Victims report sight alone can be enough to inspire fear, if the abuser brandishes a firearm or displays the weapon during an argument. Victims indicate their abusers use firearms to gain power over them, including coercing them to do things they do not want to do (Zeoli, 2017). Researchers point out: “An abuser can simply display his gun during an argument or otherwise exhibit the gun in a hostile manner in order to imply a threat, which understandably elicits acquiescence from an intimate, as it often does in a robbery or other criminal act against a stranger” (Zeoli, 2017). Even when no firearm is visible, abusers’ threats to shoot victims are effective. Although a gun is rarely needed to terrorize the victim, they remain a dangerous and effective tool in the batterer’s arsenal.
Domestic violence perpetrators in possession of firearms pose an increased risk not only to intimate partners, but also their families and bystanders. Witnesses, including children, are more likely to be present when guns are involved in a violent incident than when no weapons are involved (Zeoli, 2018b). In 12 percent of cases reviewed by the Project, someone else besides the victim and perpetrator was killed. Seventy-three percent of those deaths were by firearm. Further demonstrating that this private violence is a public safety issue, an analysis of 156 mass shooter incidents in the United States between 2009 and 2016 revealed 54 percent of mass shootings were related to family violence (Everytown for Gun Safety, 2017). Mass shootings are incidents in which four or more people, not including the shooter, were shot and killed. Tragically, 40 percent of those killed during U.S. mass shooter incidents in that time period were children (Everytown for Gun Safety, 2017). Of the five Georgia mass shooting events included in the study, four incidents involved intimate partners (80 percent) and resulted in 20 deaths.
Many of these mass shooting events are categorized as familicides. These include incidents when a perpetrator kills a victim of domestic violence and one or more of her children; in some cases, other adults were also killed. Between 2013 and 2017, there were 23 incidents of familicide recorded by the Project in Georgia. Those familicide incidents resulted in 56 deaths, including 13 intimate partner victims, 26 minor or adult children of the parties, three extended family members of the victim (including two parents), one friend, one new partner of the victim, and 12 perpetrators.
More information on mass shootings is available in our 2015 Annual Report available at www.GeorgiaFatalityReview.com/reports/report/2015-report.
Research suggests the risk of homicide increases when a violent intimate partner has access to a firearm (Zeoli, 2017). In her nationally recognized study, researcher Linda Saltzman and her team studied the increased risk of firearms in family violence incidents in Georgia and found firearms-involved assaults were 12 times more likely to result in death than assaults which did not involve firearms (Saltzman et al., 1992).
Similarly, the risk of injury in non-fatal domestic violence is also greater when a violent intimate partner has access to a firearm (Zeoli, 2017), particularly for children. More children are injured during domestic violence incidents which involve guns, than those in which no external weapons are involved (Zeoli, 2018b).
Counter to arguments which advocate firearms for selfprotection, the presence of a firearm in domestic violence incidents raises the likelihood of homicide, regardless of who owns the weapon. There is a 500 percent increase in risk of homicide when an abusive intimate partner has access to a gun (Zeoli, 2017), yet Georgia has done little to address the issue of firearms access.
Keeping guns out of the hands of abusers is essential to protecting victims. The Project’s ongoing finding of firearms as the leading cause of death in reviewed cases underscores our repeated recommendation for use of all legal means possible to remove firearms from the hands of domestic violence abusers.
Kristen’s husband of 15 years, James, began collecting guns before he introduced violence into their relationship. By the time she perceived the abuse she was experiencing in the relationship as “really bad,” James had collected nearly 100 firearms. After James threatened to kill Kristen, she filed for a Temporary Protective Order (TPO). After the hearing, among other relief, James was ordered not to possess any firearms and the local Sheriff’s Office was ordered to take possession of the weapons for safekeeping.
Prior to serving the TPO, the Sheriff’s Office met with Kristen and she informed deputies where the firearms were kept in their home, that James was also known to hide weapons in furniture and his vehicle, and he often carried a firearm on his person. When deputies went to serve the TPO and address property issues with James, he turned over only one firearm, telling them he did not have access to his gun safe.
Kristen later told the Fatality Review Team of the deputy, “She told me she had only got the one gun from him. I told her to look in the desk drawer. I know he has firearms somewhere. I told her to check the truck. She said ‘Ma’am, I cannot do that.’” James did have a firearm in his vehicle and he later used it to shoot Kristen and then himself.
Thankfully, Kristen survived the attack and shared her experiences with a Fatality Review Team, stating if law enforcement had been authorized to search for weapons, rather than rely on James to turn them over, things may have ended differently. “They do not let him leave with the garage door openers, but they let him leave with the handgun he shot me with. It makes no sense.”
The Federal Gun Control Act [U.S.C. § 922(g)(9)] prohibits abusers convicted of misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence from purchasing or possessing firearms. The statute defines a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence as any state, federal or tribal misdemeanor that involves “the use or attempted use of physical force, or the threatened use of a deadly weapon” [18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(33)(A)]. The crime must have been committed by an offender who at the time of the offense met at least one of these conditions:
- married or formerly married to the victim
- parent or guardian of the victim
- had a child together with the victim
- lived or formerly lived with the victim
- was a person “similarly situated” to a spouse, parent or guardian of the victim (National Center on Protection Orders and Full Faith and Credit, 2015)
The passage of the Lautenberg Amendment removed exemptions for police and military personnel and retroactively prohibited those convicted of qualifying misdemeanors from purchasing, possessing or transferring a firearm, greatly increasing the breadth of coverage provided under federal law (Battered Women’s Justice Project, 2016).
Versions of the federal statute are mirrored in 27 states’ codes, but Georgia has failed to add similar provisions to state law. In fact, each state bordering Georgia — Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina — has adopted measures to prohibit those convicted of qualifying misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence from possessing a firearm, but Georgia has neglected to take this important step towards supporting victim safety. State officials can only enforce the prohibition if there is a state law mirroring the federal prohibition, leaving many community stakeholders feeling like their hands are tied.
This failure to address firearms access has not only left victims unprotected, but has often left law enforcement vulnerable. A 2018 Department of Justice study of law enforcement lineof-duty fatalities confirmed domestic violence incidents represented the highest number of fatal types of calls for service — accounting for 29 percent of deaths which occurred in the line of duty during 2010–2016 (Breul & Luongo, 2018). Onehundred percent of those line-of-duty deaths were by firearm.
TEMPORARY PROTECTIVE ORDERS AND FIREARMS
In addition to restricting firearms access for abusers convicted of misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence, the Federal Gun Control Act [18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(8)] prohibits abusers currently under qualifying TPOs from purchasing or possessing firearms. As part of the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act, it is unlawful for any person who is subject to a court order, including TPOs, which meet the following criteria to possess a firearm or ammunition:
- The parties meet a relationship requirement which includes a person:
• to whom the abuser is married (or was married) at the time the order was issued; or
• with whom the abuser lived (or previously lived) at the time the order was issued; or
• with whom the abuser had a child at the time the order was issued; or
• who was the abuser’s child at the time the order was issued
- the order is issued after a hearing is held and for which there was actual notice and an opportunity to participate;
- a finding is made that the respondent (abuser, defendant) poses a credible threat to the physical safety of the intimate partner or child; and
- the order restrains someone from harassing, stalking, or threatening an intimate partner or child, or engaging in conduct that would place an intimate partner in reasonable fear of injury. (Battered Women’s Justice Project, 2016; Zeoli, 2018a; National Center on Protection Orders and Full Faith and Credit, 2015)
Federal firearms restrictions require actual notice to the abuser and the right to be heard in court. Georgia’s two-part TPO process empowers victims to seek relief from the court without the abuser’s knowledge. Although the process minimizes coercion intended to stop the victim from coming forward and provides law enforcement agencies charged with serving the orders a tactical advantage, a lack of state law to supplement the firearms restrictions which come along with the final TPO hearing leaves many victims exposed to additional risk. First hearings for TPOs are conducted ex parte, with only one side present; this does not require notification to the abuser or give them an opportunity to be heard, meaning firearms prohibitions may not be enforceable. This gap in protection is compounded by the heightened risk of lethal violence associated with the victim leaving the relationship. States which have provisions addressing firearms in the Ex Parte TPO have seen a 12 percent reduction in total intimate partner homicide and a 16 percent reduction in firearms related intimate partner homicides since their prohibitions were enacted (Zeoli, 2018a). Georgia statute requires that in order to qualify for a Family Violence TPO, parties must be past or present spouses, persons who are parents of the same child, parents and children, stepparents and step-children, foster parents and foster children, or other persons living or formerly living in the same household (O.C.G.A. § 19-13-1). Dating partners are often left out of the protections offered by a TPO and, as such, are also left out of any firearms prohibitions. Closing this small gap in the type of intimate partner relationships which qualify for TPOs locally, often identified as “the boyfriend loophole,” would bridge a significant gap in victim safety.
Six percent of cases reviewed by the Project fell through the boyfriend loophole, as they involved parties who had neither lived together, had children together, nor married. Sixty-seven percent of those victims died by firearm. States which have proactively included dating partners in their protections under a TPO have seen an 11 percent reduction on the total rate of intimate partner homicide, along with a 14 percent reduction in the rate of firearms-related intimate partner homicide (Zeoli, 2018a).
In circumstances wherein the victim is aware they have the right to petition the court to address firearms access, and subsequently include that in their request for relief, Georgia’s TPO process does allow some room for firearms access to be addressed. It is within judicial discretion to include relief that prohibits the respondent (abuser) from purchasing or possessing firearms and ammunition. Georgia judges can also order the respondent to turn over his firearms for safekeeping. Sadly, the lack of a judicial obligation to include language which addresses these issues often means it is only the best-trained judges who are aware adding firearms language to the standard TPO forms can be lifesaving.
Amplifying the problem, even in cases where firearms have been addressed from the bench, local law enforcement agencies are often left without the teeth they need to enforce the order. Despite the prevailing knowledge that abusers who choose to violate a TPO are among the most dangerous (Klein, 1996), the criminal act of violation of the order is a misdemeanor. What’s worse is that even since the enhancement of the law allowing arrest for violation of a protective order (O.C.G.A. § 16-5-95) in 2013, many communities still address violations as civil issues of contempt. Addressing the violations in civil court allows a maximum incarceration of 20 days for violators, whereas in criminal court a defendant can be sentenced up to 12 months for the same act.
LEGAL RESTRICTIONS HAVE SIGNIFICANT IMPACTS
Without universal requirements or enforcement of firearms restrictions, Georgia stakeholders are often forced to work out piecemeal solutions to address the risks associated with abusers who have access to guns. Few communities have official protocols which address abusers’ access to firearms.
There are few Georgia communities which have implemented specific policies and protocols to address firearms removal, but in locations where they have been implemented, much has been achieved.
The DeKalb County State Court’s Firearms Reduction Initiative has garnered national attention for its proactive success in reducing offender access to firearms. Under the initiative, probationers convicted of misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence are put on notice of firearms prohibitions and sign a judicial notice, swearing they either do not possess firearms or must surrender their weapons, ammunition and firearms permit to probation officers within 24 hours of adjudication. Offender are not allowed to keep their guns nor sell them. More about DeKalb County’s protocol is available in the Project’s 2014 Annual Report available at GeorgiaFatalityReview.com/reports/report/2014-report.
Regardless of whether firearms restrictions are codified or community-driven, the impact is significant. The incorporation of firearms restrictions into TPOs is associated with reductions in intimate partner homicide committed with firearms and total rates of intimate partner homicide (Zeoli, 2018a). An analysis of 45 states’ data has demonstrated that in large cities, statelevel firearms prohibitions when a TPO was in effect yielded a 19 percent reduction on total intimate partner homicide and a 25 percent reduction in intimate partner homicides committed with firearms. Even outside those cities, in states with firearms prohibitions in the TPOs, an 8 percent reduction in all intimate partner homicides and a 9 percent reduction in intimate partner homicides completed with firearms were noted (Zeoli, 2018a). The same study showed states which had mandated firearms relinquishment under a TPO yielded a 13 percent reduction in the rate of firearms-related intimate partner homicides (Zeoli, 2018a).
Similar results were noted when researchers looked at the effect of states’ expanding the narrow federal-qualifying definition of “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” to one which restricts abusers who, regardless of their relationship to the victim, were convicted of a violent misdemeanor. States which enacted firearms prohibitions for all offenders convicted of violent misdemeanors saw a 24 percent reduction in the intimate partner homicide rate and a 27 percent drop in the rate of firearms-related intimate partner homicide.
Mounting evidence of increased levels of safety for victims, law enforcement and communities as a whole are setting the stage for necessary changes within our state to address the firearms problem. While proactive legislation will address the largest gaps, and a case for legislative action is looming, more must be done to address this issue outside of the Gold Dome as well. Georgia stakeholders must evaluate their own roles in reducing abusers’ access to firearms, whether in ensuring relief is included in a court order, educating a victim on the risks of access, storing firearms for at-risk individuals, or developing surrender or safekeeping protocols with others in your community. The severity of the firearms problem in domestic violence cases calls for a multi-faceted response, and each system has much to offer to the solution.
STEPS GEORGIA CAN TAKE TO RESTRICT ABUSER ACCESS TO FIREARMS:
- Enact proactive legislation to limit abuser access to firearms. Georgia has fallen behind our closest neighbors and many other states in efforts to address the public safety issues that abusers with firearms access pose. A concerted effort must be made to enforce federal firearms prohibitions locally and to close existing loopholes which allow dangerous dating partners to fall outside of prohibitions.
- Ensure firearms access is restricted for abusers subject to Temporary Protective Orders. Until Georgia codifies the federal firearms prohibitions into local law, much of the work of reducing abuser access to firearms will be done from the bench. Georgia judges should proactively address firearms access in TPOs and compliance hearings to ensure prohibitions are followed.
- Develop countywide protocols to establish how each agency will cooperate to restrict access to firearms by domestic violence offenders and protective order respondents. Georgia’s communities must carry the torch for this important issue until legislative and legal system actions catch up with the risk firearms pose to citizens of our state. Develop a plan to address abuser access with your local task force or coordinated community response.