(Editor’s note: This is the second installment of our three-part series as part of Domestic Violence Awareness Month.)
America is slowly starting to become aware of the intersections between a largely underreported issue and a heavily politicized one: the connection between domestic violence and gun violence.
The Department of Justice cited a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistic that one in roughly every six homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner.
In an October 2020 press release, the DOJ said it charged over 500 domestic violence cases involving firearms during fiscal year 2020.
Columbia’s Cindy McMullan, who is a volunteer lead with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, echoed yet another somber figure the DOJ mentioned.
“We know through our research that access to guns makes it five times more likely that an abuser will kill his female victim, so there is a big connection between gun violence and domestic violence,” McMullan said.
This statistic is not necessarily tied to gender, although research shows women are more likely to face domestic violence than men.
The majority of mass shootings are tied to partner or family violence.
“Everytown (For Gun Safety and Support Fund) did a study on mass shootings in which … they classify mass shootings as a shooting where (at least) four people are shot and killed not counting the shooter, and over half of mass shootings are connected to domestic or family violence,” McMullan said.
To be exact, Everytown found this figure to be at 53 percent when tracking mass shootings from 2009-2020.
Just as domestic violence at large is not always tied to physical assaults, those who use guns to inflict abuse can do so without even firing at their victims.
“The abuser doesn’t necessarily need to point the gun at victims. They can use the weapon as a way to intimidate, to emotionally abuse, their victims and to coerce them,” McMullan said.
She then gave an example of this happening to someone her family knew.
“Her estranged husband would come over to her house with a gun, walk through the house, go to the backyard and fire a couple of shots in the air and then leave,” McMullan said. “She got to the point where she was sleeping on the floor … with her feet against the door so she could feel it if he was trying to come in. He may not have ever pointed the gun at her, but just having the weapon and using it in an intimidating fashion like that is enough to be abusive.”
For the Violence Prevention Center of Southwestern Illinois, an abuser having access to a gun is a huge consideration when helping a survivor come up with a safety plan.
“Basically, when I find out that there are guns in a home, I ask more questions,” Melissa Kaufman, VPCSWI legal advocate for Monroe and Randolph counties, said.
The center has seen cases where abusers have access to guns but they are locked away and never used in a threatening manner as well as cases where abusers use guns as a central way to control others.
No matter what, Kaufman said, she advises survivors to let the police know if there are guns present.
“Even if there is no gun in the altercation but they call the police, I let (the survivor) know to let the officer know there are guns in the home,” Kaufman said.
Knowing whether or not an alleged abuser has a firearm helps law enforcement determine how to best respond to a domestic violence call.
“These types of calls for service are many times the most dangerous for law enforcement,” Monroe County Sheriff Neal Rohlfing said. “On every call like this, we check to see the history of those involved (and if) any weapons are present or used. Determining if the scene is safe is crucial for the victims and also the deputies. If it is determined that we need to remove the firearms, we do to ensure the safety of all involved.”
He said in situations that warrant a suspect’s Firearm Owners Identification card be revoked, Illinois provides processes by which to do so.
If somebody is a respondent in a restraining order, they are ordered to turn their firearms over to the sheriff’s department or someone with a valid FOID card, Rohlfing said.
With the Firearms Restraining Order Act, commonly called “the Red Flag Law,” which took effect in 2019, law enforcement was provided another avenue to potentially revoke a suspect’s FOID card. However, Rohlfing said his department has not seen many instances of this act helping to revoke one’s FOID card.
McMullan noted that this act not only allows law enforcement to petition a judge to rule that an abuser’s firearms be temporarily removed, but also concerned family members. If the court determines there is necessary reason to cease the firearms, law enforcement would then do so.
This, she said, can be useful in a wide variety of unsafe situations.
“If you have a loved one who indicates they could do harm to themselves or someone else, you can get a court order to have their firearms temporarily removed,” McMullan explained. “That helps with suicide, and I think it would also help with domestic violence.”
Rohlfing added in addition to someone struggling with mental health concerns, the Red Flag Law can also be used to keep guns out of the hands of people with drug addiction.
Chris Peters, also a Moms Demand Action volunteer lead, stressed the “temporary removal” aspect of the law.
“The gun owners need to be aware that if their … guns are taken away from them, it’s not permanent,” Peters said. “If they can work it out with the system and they have shown they are not a threat to themselves and others, they will get their guns returned. It’s not a permanent situation.”
For more information on other ways in which a domestic abuser’s FOID card may be revoked in Illinois, visit giffords.org.
McMullan and Peters said if the Senate were to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, it would also help prevent gun-related domestic abuse. As NPR reported in March, the House passed the reauthorization, 244-172.
The bill includes provisions aimed at barring those convicted of stalking or domestic abuse misdemeanors from purchasing a gun, including dating partners. By tightening gun restrictions, the bill has become a contentious topic. McMullan pointed out it also hopes to increase protections for communities disproportionately impacted by domestic and gun violence.
Aside from advocating for the reauthorization of VAWA and background checks for gun sales in all states, McMullan said there are other ways to help survivors.
“Talk about it and support the Violence Prevention Center,” McMullan said. “Help them with their fundraising, call them and see what they recommend needs to be done.”
For more about Moms Demand Action and Everytown for Gun Safety, visit their respective websites.
To learn more about VPCSWI, visit vpcswi.org or call 618-235-0892 for the center’s 24-hour crisis hotline.