Today, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee will meet to discuss how the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) can protect victims of domestic abuse from gun violence. Developing and funding research on effective interventions and policies is essential to moving this conversation beyond rhetoric and into effective action.
What we know about domestic violence and homicide in the United States
Women are much more likely than men to be the victims of domestic violence homicide. Forty percent of female homicide victims were killed by a current or former intimate partner in 2005, compared with just 2 percent of male homicide victims. Nationally, domestic homicides take the lives of approximately three women each day.
The presence of firearms elevates the risk. Firearms are used in two-thirds of all domestic homicides, and female victims of domestic violence are five times more likely to be killed by their abuser if that abuser has access to a gun.
What makes domestic homicides even more tragic is that they are often preventable. One study in North Carolina found that at least 67 percent of domestic homicides were preceded by domestic violence, and in 2011, 61 percent of serious domestic violence incidents were reported to the police.
What can we do to stop the violence?
Clearly, police are encountering a number of incidents that may later escalate into homicide. Equipping law enforcement with tools like the Danger Assessment, which has a strong track record of identifying potential domestic homicide victims, offers an opportunity to intervene before abuse becomes homicide. How we intervene, however, is a more challenging question.
We have limited evidence on what laws and policies prevent domestic gun violence. States have experimented with a wide array of policies and programs to prevent domestic homicides, but we still don’t know what works. That’s where research needs to come in.
Eighteen states have laws authorizing police to remove firearms from a home if they respond to a domestic violence incident. Twenty states have laws authorizing courts to remove firearms from a home as part of a restraining order. But these laws vary significantly across states in the authority they give courts and law enforcement to restrict abusers’ access to weapons. A closer look at what policies and practices are most effective could provide insights that we could apply nationwide, but no one is doing that research.
Why research matters
Sometimes, what feels like an obvious solution just doesn’t work in practice. Domestic abuse in particular is an area in which both conventional wisdom and status quo have proven glaringly inadequate. For instance, most domestic batterer programs have been found to have no effect on offenders’ behavior, and mandatory arrest policies for abusers, once thought to be a sound strategy for protecting victims, have been found to actually increase the risk of domestic homicide.
Initial work has found that while laws restricting firearms from individuals under court order reduce homicide, laws that require the confiscation of firearms by police responding to a domestic abuse incident have no effect. But what we don’t know is how these laws are executed—whether or how often police actually enforce these laws. Without this basic data, we can’t tell if the laws are ineffective or whether they are just being implemented poorly, a crucial insight for devising new strategies to protect victims.
If research finds that these policies, when well implemented, can prevent domestic gun homicides, more states should adopt these strategies and VAWA should be modified to encourage them to do so. Strengthening enforcement of protection orders for domestic violence cases and empowering victims to hold law enforcement accountable if agencies don’t adequately respond could be another avenue if research shows such tactics are effective.
Today’s hearing on the VAWA and the role of guns in domestic homicides presents a perfect opportunity for policymakers to support more efforts to document what works to protect victims from gun violence and to translate that knowledge into action.
Photo: Domestic violence advocate Kimberly Brusk, left, speaks with Beth Stubbings during a gun control rally as part of the "No More Names: National Drive to Reduce Gun Violence," a 25-state national bus tour, at the Georgia State Capitol, Monday, June 24, 2013, in Atlanta. Families of gun violence victims, gun owners, elected officials, faith leaders and advocates voiced their support for comprehensive background checks. (AP Photo/Jaime Henry-White)