There Is Common Ground on Guns

Posted December 19, 2017 10:17 p.m. EST
Updated December 19, 2017 10:21 p.m. EST

“Do something!” It’s what Americans plead after each successive mass slaying — in Newtown, Connecticut; in Orlando, Florida, in Sutherland Springs, Texas — sickened by the ease with which one man with a gun can massacre dozens of people.

Yet the uproar around each slaughter has tended to obscure a disturbing pattern. No matter where these men opened fire — in a schoolhouse, in a nightclub, in a church — their violence almost always began at home, with acts of domestic abuse.

Nearly half of women killed in the United States are murdered by a current or former romantic partner. Young children are most often killed at home. In a majority of cases, the weapons used are firearms.

The National Rifle Association and fierce defenders for gun rights have stymied most efforts to advance sensible safety rules. But these same gun rights advocates have been willing to support laws to stop access to guns by domestic abusers.

It’s past time to enact these laws and toughen enforcement. Taking steps to protect the potential victims of family violence may save their lives — and prevent the next mass shooting, as well.

Few things unite America like the violence under our roofs.

Crimes of intimacy, crimes of passion, crimes at home. We all know someone who is affected, even if we don’t know who it is: Nearly 20 people per minute in the United States are physically abused by a loved one, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s 1 in 3 women in her lifetime, 1 in 4 men. More than 1 in 5 children are exposed to family violence. And it’s that trauma — the horrors witnessed by young people — that echoes most loudly across generations.

“Please stop. Just stop, Daddy. Just stop. Daddy, why are you doing this?” an 8-year-old begged.

“My wife,” a husband sobbed, “my wife just shot her kids.”

“Don’t worry about me, save my momma, don’t worry about me,” a 15-year-old pleaded to police.

“Stay in the closet. Stay hidden in the closet,” a 911 operator told a 17-year-old trying to keep his 3-year-old sister safe.

Irrefutable evidence — and plain common sense — suggest that these devastating family dynamics are made exponentially more dangerous by something that many Americans bring into the home, an invited guest: a gun.

Every 16 hours an American woman is shot dead by a current or former spouse or dating partner, according to a 2016 Associated Press analysis of FBI and state crime data. The presence of a gun in a home — no matter who owns the weapon — makes it five times as likely that domestic abuse will lead to a woman’s murder.

While the country is deeply divided over guns, it is united in its concern about domestic crimes. The closest thing to a consensus on increasing gun safety is most likely found in preventing people with documented histories of domestic violence from using guns in anger. In fact, that kind of unity has been achieved in the past — in 1996, when the federal government acted to protect families. In one of the last significant national gun safety improvements passed, the Senate voted 97-2, with one abstention, to prohibit those convicted in the assault of a spouse or a child or under a permanent protective order from owning or buying firearms.

“I am convinced that the overwhelming majority of Americans would agree with these basic principles: Wife beaters should not have guns,” said the measure’s main sponsor, then-Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. “Child abusers should not have guns.”

This law, known as the Lautenberg Amendment, has done its job. Since it was enacted, nearly 195,000 people have been stopped from buying weapons, flagged in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System as violent offenders. The number of guns kept out of the hands of abusers is even higher.

Time has also revealed the law’s shortcomings. For one, what the American family looks like today is different from 20 years ago — and unless a couple is married or cohabiting as spouses, or unless two people have a child together, the federal prohibition doesn’t apply. That leaves abuse in many other relationships — grandparents, siblings, stepchildren, dating partners — uncovered. At the same time, new studies have shown that guns used against intimate partners and relatives also often end up killing many others: friends, law enforcement officers, churchgoers, total strangers. A majority of mass shootings in the United States are related to family violence, as are nearly a quarter of all killings of police officers in the line of duty.

There’s little disagreement that these shootings should end, that laws should be better enforced, that criminals should be punished. Even the gun lobby supports legislative changes aimed at doing so. The only disagreements are over which criminals should be blocked from buying guns and which of their potential domestic targets deserve to be protected. While many gun rights advocates worry about encroachments on the right to bear arms, expanding the protections in the Lautenberg Amendment — a formula proven to prevent deaths while curbing the rights only of criminals — can hardly be cast as a major expansion of gun controls.

Several states, including North Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin, have paved the way. This patchwork of laws could be considerably strengthened by serious work on the federal level.

That would mean expanding the protections in the Lautenberg Amendment to include dating partners and family members beyond spouses and children, as well as those under a temporary protective order. In addition, the range of criminals barred from gun purchases should include anyone convicted of the crime of stalking. Finally, the police ought to be able to seize firearms when they know they’re likely to be turned on loved ones.

There are other protections that should be enacted, some of which have little or no effect on who bears arms. Deficiencies in the national background check system need to be fixed. For example, the Justice Department should be obliged to notify law enforcement agencies when convicted abusers try to purchase firearms, and law enforcement agencies should then alert the victims of those abusers. Judges also should do a better job of using laws already available to them, at their discretion, to protect families.

To be human is to be at the mercy of anger, our own and that of those around us. Keeping guns out of the hands of those who can’t harness their demons will keep Americans safer in their homes, safer around their children and safer as a nation.

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