Last week, a gunman with a history of domestic violence opened fire outside of Mercy Hospital in Chicago, shooting an emergency room doctor who was his ex-fiancee in the parking lot before entering the hospital and killing a police officer and a pharmacist.
In 2014, this same gunman had a temporary order of protection issued against him by an ex-wife who claimed he slept with a gun under his pillow. He’d also previously threatened to shoot up the Chicago Fire Department Academy after he faced allegations of improper conduct towards women there.
It’s an achingly familiar story in America, where a history of domestic violence has become a harbinger of the mass shootings that make headlines. Everytown for Gun Safety found that between 2009 and 2016, a majority of mass shootings involved domestic or family violence and that 33 percent of mass shooters had a documented history of violence against women. It’s as if women are the canary in the coal mine, sounding the alarm about violent, toxic masculinity. And no one is listening.
Women have become a casualty of America’s obsession with guns. A glance at the statistics makes it hard not to argue that women’s lives have become an acceptable loss to the NRA and the gun lobby.
More than 52 percent of American women who are murdered with guns are killed by intimate partners or other family members, making them 16 times more likely to die from gun violence than women in other developed countries. Women who have experienced abuse are five times more likely to be killed if their abuser owns a firearm, and domestic violence assaults are 12 times more likely to end in death than other types of assaults, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
The real tragedy is that while states already have laws that would keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, many fail to enforce them consistently. In 28 states, there are laws prohibiting domestic abusers from buying or possessing firearms, but only 14 require offenders to surrender the guns they already own.
Even in those 28 states, several issues complicate confiscating firearms, including the failure of various agencies to report information to shared national databases. A Florida International University report reviewed 1,300 domestic violence cases handled by the military between 2004 and 2012 and found a large portion of them were misclassified. In Washington, an investigation into domestic abusers who were ordered to surrender their guns found that 80 percent simply ignored the request, and law enforcement failed to follow up in a majority of cases.
Some states, however, have started to take their responsibility to keep guns out of the hands of violent offenders more seriously. Louisiana, which currently ranks second in the nation for the highest rate of women killed by men, now requires those convicted of domestic abuse or who have an active order of protection against them to surrender all firearms.
Louisiana also enacted laws requiring gun dealers to alert authorities if someone with a conviction attempts to purchase a gun, and to criminally penalize dealers who fail to do so. It’s the first of several steps to tighten up laws at the state level that allow domestic abusers to slip through the system and go on to commit other acts of violence.
At the national level, however, current laws are woefully inadequate. Congress failed to renew the Violence Against Women Act permanently earlier this year, including updates to the laws that address ways to remove guns from those who are convicted of abuse residing in public housing.
Domestic violence is actually one of the largest contributors to homelessness among women, with 63 percent of homeless women saying they had experienced intimate partner violence, according to the Journal of American Medical Women’s Association. Laws that evict offenders without penalizing victims could advance the ability of women to find refuge and some measure of safety from the violence of their abusers.
While some of these efforts to close loopholes light the way towards sensible gun control that could save lives, there is an inherent and breathtaking bias in the idea that we have begun to pay attention to domestic violence because it indicates a heightened risk of mass shootings. We’ve known for decades that a majority of women who are murdered are killed by their intimate partners, and yet that’s not the focus of the discussion about gun control. And it should be.
As long as we value the right to own a gun over a woman’s right to life, we’ll continue to fail to protect a majority of Americans from this ongoing epidemic of gun violence.
(Grit Post’s editorial policy is to not publish the names or likenesses of mass shooters in order to prevent them from gaining notoriety.)
Kaz Weida is a freelance journalist and photographer. Her areas of expertise include education, gender equality, and all things #MeToo. You’ll find her on Twitter @kazweida, getting into “good” trouble.