Women’s Lives, Cut Short

Posted December 26, 2017 10:25 p.m. EST

Americans have long struggled to find common ground in the gun debate. Even after a spate of horrific mass shootings this year, Republican legislators consistently rebuffed efforts to improve gun safety laws.

If common ground does exist, it might be found here: in reducing the number of homicides each year that begin with domestic abuse. Congress attempted to address domestic violence involving guns over two decades ago with the Lautenberg Amendment. That law prohibits people from owning or purchasing guns if they have been convicted of assaulting a spouse or child, or if they are under a permanent protective order.

Since it took effect, nearly 195,000 people have been stopped from buying weapons. But hard experience over the last 20 years has revealed dangerous loopholes in the law. Closing them could save hundreds of lives each year.

To better understand the law and its effects, consider the women murdered in 2015. While there is no complete accounting of homicides at the national level, the FBI works with police forces across the United States to create detailed records for many of them. In 2015, more than 1,800 women or girls were murdered in homicides involving a single victim and single offender, according to the most detailed data available from the FBI. Because not all police departments report murders to the FBI, the complete tally would be higher.

These women lived in every state, in places as sparsely populated as Mount Gretna, Pennsylvania, (around 200 people), or as crowded as New York City (8.5 million). The oldest woman was 96. Several victims were just a few days old.

More than 90 percent of these women and girls were killed by men. The rates of black and Native American women killed are significantly higher than white or Asian women.

Domestic violence was one of the most significant risk factors leading to the murder of women, according to a 2003 study. Researchers found that up to 80 percent of “intimate partner” homicides involved a man physically abusing a woman ahead of her murder. They concluded that “one of the major ways to decrease intimate partner homicide is to identify and intervene with battered women at risk.”

In general, women are relatively seldom killed by strangers. In cases where the relationship could be determined, 93 percent of women were killed by someone they knew, according to an analysis of FBI data.

By barring gun access by anyone convicted, the Lautenberg Amendment attempted to reduce the chances that violent situations could become deadlier. But it seeks to prevent gun ownership only if two people are married, cohabitating as spouses or if they have a child together. Those circumstances apply to at least 395 wives who were killed by their husbands in 2015. (The FBI doesn’t track whether a victim and an offender had a child together.)

But the American family has changed in the last two decades, and many relationships don’t fall under the government’s strict definition. For example, at least 469 women were killed in 2015 by their boyfriends — relationships not addressed by the law.

Overall, in gun deaths where the relationship could be determined, fully 67 percent of women were killed by a common-law partner, boyfriend, husband or ex-husband.

Decades ago, far more murders were committed by spouses than dating partners. But that shifted over time. In 2008, more murders were committed by dating partners, according to a study of homicide data by the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety. In 2015, they were about equal.

Besides ignoring that reality, the amendment also fails to apply to anyone convicted of stalking, or those under temporary protective orders. Expanding the law to close these loopholes, collectively referred to as the “boyfriend loophole,” could save lives.

Overall, people with a history of domestic violence are five times as likely to murder an intimate partner when a gun is in the house. Among women shot to death by men they knew, 45 percent were killed during an argument.

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