Clos­ing the ‘stalker gap’ in gun laws

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

The de­bate over mea­sures to re­duce gun vi­o­lence poses a cruel para­dox. The most ef­fec­tive steps are po­lit­i­cally un­think­able and likely un­con­sti­tu­tional. More re­strained ap­proaches, such as tighter back­ground checks and re­duced am­mu­ni­tion mag­a­zine sizes, have proved mad­den­ingly im­pos­si­ble to ma­neu­ver through the po­lit­i­cal process and are open to the charge that they would not stop the killing.

This cri­tique is cor­rect but un­per­sua­sive. With hun­dreds of mil­lions of guns in cir­cu­la­tion, small tweaks will not stop the car­nage; cer­tainly no sin­gle tweak alone will. Yet that is an ar­gu­ment for achiev­able half-mea­sures, not for paral­y­sis. And de­spite the oth­er­wise grid­locked pol­i­tics of gun con­trol, there may be a sliver of po­lit­i­cal hope for pro­pos­als to ad­dress a rel­a­tively small but es­pe­cially heart­break­ing as­pect of the prob­lem: the lethal mix of guns and do­mes­tic abuse.

Since the 1990s, fed­eral law has barred those con­victed of do­mes­tic abuse from le­gally buy­ing guns. But ex­ist­ing law suf­fers from a “stalker gap,” a “boyfriend gap” and a “re­strain­ing-or­der gap.” In­di­vid­u­als con­victed of mis­de­meanor stalk­ing of­fenses are not barred from pass­ing back­ground checks and buy­ing guns. In ad­di­tion, abusers who are not mar­ried, do not live to­gether or do not share a child — those in dat­ing re­la­tion­ships — aren’t cov­ered by the ban.

More con­tro­ver­sially, al­though abusers sub­ject to per­ma­nent re­strain­ing or­ders can­not le­gally pos­sess or pur­chase guns, no such pro­hi­bi­tion ap­plies in sit­u­a­tions where only a tem­po­rary or­der is in place. In other words, the pro­tec­tions are low­est at pre­cisely the point when women are in the great­est dan­ger.

The num­bers demon­strate both the gen­der gap in the na­ture of vi­o­lent crime and how deadly th­ese loop­holes may be.

As to the gen­der gap: Women are less likely than men to be the vic­tims of vi­o­lent crime, but when they are, the per­pe­tra­tor is far more likely to be some­one they know. Be­tween 2003 and 2012, one-third of fe­male mur­der vic­tims were killed by a male in­ti­mate part­ner, com­pared with 2.5 per­cent of men, ac­cord­ing to fig­ures an­a­lyzed by the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress.

More than half of th­ese killings were com­mit­ted with guns. The num­bers are stag­ger­ing: 6,410 deaths, slightly fewer than the to­tal num­ber of U.S. troops who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In­deed, ac­cord­ing to a study by the Johns Hop­kins Cen­ter for Gun Pol­icy and Re­search, hav­ing a gun in the house in­creases the risk of in­ti­mate-part­ner homi­cide by eight times com­pared with house­holds with­out guns — and 20-fold when there is a his­tory of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence.

As to the loop­holes: One study of fe­male mur­der vic­tims in 10 ci­ties found that 76 per­cent of women mur­dered by a cur­rent or former in­ti­mate part­ner ex­pe­ri­enced stalk­ing in the pre­ced­ing year. The share of vic­tims killed in dat­ing sit­u­a­tions is ris­ing; nearly half of those killed by in­ti­mate part­ners in 2008 were mur­dered by boyfriends, ac­cord­ing to the Bureau of Jus­tice Statis­tics.

And in the 17 states that have ex­panded gun pro­hi­bi­tions to those sub­ject to tem­po­rary re­strain­ing or­ders, over­all in­ti­mate-part­ner homi­cides fell by nearly one-fifth. Nor do vi­o­lent abusers sim­ply turn to other meth­ods when de­prived of guns; ac­cord­ing to Michi­gan State Univer­sity crim­i­nol­o­gist April Ze­oli, pro­hibit­ing those sub­ject to do­mes­tic-vi­o­lence re­strain­ing or­ders from hav­ing guns re­duces not only firearm homi­cides but also mur­ders by other means.

Could con­fronting do­mes­tic vi­o­lence be an ex­cep­tion to the gen­eral grid­lock on gun vi­o­lence? Amer­i­cans for Re­spon­si­ble So­lu­tions, the group co-founded by former con­gress­woman Gabrielle Gif­fords af­ter the Tuc­son shoot­ing, has launched an ef­fort to push for fed­eral and state changes.

In Congress, a pro­posal by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) that would close the stalker and boyfriend gaps just at­tracted a Repub­li­can co-spon­sor, Illi­nois Sen. Mark Kirk; a com­pan­ion bill in the House, by Michi­gan Demo­crat Deb­bie Din­gell, is also backed by a Repub­li­can, Robert Dold of Illi­nois. A sep­a­rate pro­posal, by Sen. Richard Blu­men­thal (D-Conn.), would also bar those sub­ject to tem­po­rary re­strain­ing or­ders from hav­ing guns, sub­ject to later re­view.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, if sadly, the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion op­poses even the Klobuchar-Din­gell bill, say­ing it would “turn dis­putes be­tween fam­ily mem­bers and so­cial ac­quain­tances into life­time firearm pro­hi­bi­tions” and “ma­nip­u­lates emo­tion­ally com­pelling is­sues such as ‘do­mes­tic vi­o­lence’ and ‘stalk­ing’ sim­ply to cast as wide a net as pos­si­ble for fed­eral firearm pro­hi­bi­tions.”

Tell that, please, to the fa­ther of a daugh­ter mur­dered by her boyfriend. Tell it to the sis­ter of a young woman killed by a man who plea-bar­gained his stalk­ing of­fense down to a mis­de­meanor. Emo­tional ma­nip­u­la­tion? Please. At that, the NRA has no par­al­lel.

Could con­fronting do­mes­tic vi­o­lence be an ex­cep­tion to the gen­eral grid­lock on gun vi­o­lence?

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