Last week the Senate Judiciary Committee held its first -ever hearing on guns and domestic violence – keeping the spotlight on an issue that made national news recently.
Back in February, Ray Rice – the running back for my hometown Baltimore Ravens – assaulted his then fiancée, now-wife, Janay. Rice eventually reached an agreement with prosecutors that could result in a dismissal of all charges. Then, five months after the incident, the NFL issued its own punishment: suspending Rice for the first two games of the 2014 season. (As several commentators have pointed out, the NFL issues harsher penalties for smoking pot and taking performance-enhancing drugs than it does for assaulting a woman.)
The two-game suspension gets the headlines and the hand-wringing, but a less talked about part of Rice’s story raises a far more important question.
We know that Rice was a gun owner, at least at one point. The terms of his agreement with prosecutors weren’t made available, so it’s unclear whether he’s permitted to have guns now. But abusive spouses are generally prohibited from possessing guns. What, however, about non-married abusers and convicted stalkers – should they be allowed access to guns?
To answer that, policymakers should first consider a few more stories of domestic violence – and what the evidence says about the disturbingly lethal combination of domestic violence and guns in America.
Let’s look at the numbers. Every month, an average of 48 American women are shot to death by a current or former husband or boyfriend. American women are 11 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than women in other developed countries. The presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation makes it five times more likely that the woman will be killed.
At the hearing last week, senators heard testimony from Elvin Daniel – the brother of Zina Daniel Haughton, who was shot and killed by her estranged husband who, while prohibited from possessing a firearm, bought a gun from an unlicensed seller online. They heard a statement from Christy Martin, who survived a shooting by her husband in which her own gun was used against her. Advocates from more than a dozen states went to Washington for meetings with senators as well.
And senators heard – once again – that Congress ought to set aside its differences and pass a law to protect more Americans from gun violence. Current federal law prohibits abusive spouses from having guns, but given that more women are killed by current or former dating partners than current or former spouses, this leaves loopholes in the law that allow abusers and stalkers to get guns. A bill proposed by Senator Amy Klobuchar would close those loopholes.
For proponents of common-sense gun laws, the hearing and the Klobuchar bill are two more signs of progress in a year that’s had many. Already in 2014, six states – New Hampshire, Vermont, Washington, Klobuchar’s Minnesota, Scott Walker’s Wisconsin, and Bobby Jindal’s Louisiana – have passed laws that will keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers and stalkers. For years, the national gun lobby led opposition to these kinds of state proposals. The NRA and its allies have even argued that states should not restrict someone’s access to a gun for anything short of a felony conviction – not even “mere issuance of court orders,” as one NRA lobbyist put it. Now, predictably, the NRA has come out against the Klobuchar bill.
But something has changed. Lawmakers no longer hear only from the gun lobby on issues of public safety.
In Washington , Elvin Daniel and Christy Martin were joined by the members and allies of Everytown for Gun Safety. All of us meet with legislators and testify in city halls and statehouses and on Capitol Hill. We explain our positions and back them up with evidence. And as this year’s new domestic violence laws demonstrate, we’re winning.
Last week the NFL chose not to send a strong message about domestic violence. Our lawmakers have a chance to do better – and prove they take seriously the lethal threat that domestic violence poses to American women. They can pass Senator Klobuchar’s common-sense bill into law. In doing so, they’ll show that even in a polarized Congress, our elected officials can work together to protect families and save women’s lives.
John Feinblatt is the president of Everytown for Gun Safety.