IOWA CITY, Iowa—More than a dozen states have strengthened laws over the past two years to keep firearms out of the hands of domestic abusers, a rare area of consensus in the nation’s highly polarized debate over guns.
Lawmakers and governors of both parties have supported bills stripping gun rights from those who have been convicted of domestic violence-related crimes or are subject to protective orders. The measures have been backed by victims’ advocates, law enforcement groups and gun control supporters who see easy access to firearms as a major contributor to domestic violence killings.
Similar proposals are expected to be debated in several states this year.
“Domestic violence is definitely an area where there is the most agreement between the gun lobby and gun-violence prevention advocates,” said Allison Anderman, staff attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence in San Francisco.
The National Rifle Association has taken a cautious approach toward such bills, opposing the farthest-reaching measures but staying neutral or negotiating compromises on others. For example, the NRA has fought provisions that would require people to surrender their guns before they have a chance to contest allegations made in a request for an emergency protective order.
“There is no evidence that simply taking away people’s guns without a fair hearing makes the victims any safer,” NRA spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen said.
The push in the states is driven by stories of women and children killed or wounded by known abusers, and by statistics showing that hostile relationships often turn deadly when guns are present.
An average of 760 Americans were killed with guns annually by spouses, ex-spouses or dating partners between 2006 and 2014, according to an Associated Press analysis of FBI and Florida data. Florida’s statistics are not included in the FBI’s report, which covers all other states and District of Columbia, but were analyzed separately by AP.
The total is an undercount because not all law enforcement agencies report such information, and it doesn’t include children and other bystanders who were killed. More than 80 percent of those killed were women.
“The system failed my son, and I am going to do whatever it takes to make sure it never happens to another child or another woman,” said Hollie Ayers, 44, a Pennsylvania woman whose 2½-year-old son, Michael, was shot and killed in front of her by her abusive ex-husband in 2013. “Michael’s life to me was priceless. If you can at least reduce the amount of homicides, this is a no-brainer to me.”
Ayers, who was shot in the face and the leg, said she constantly thinks about her son, who loved tractors and puzzles. Her ex-husband killed himself after the rampage.
Ayers had warned that he had guns and had said that he, his ex-wife and the child “would be better off dead” before she obtained a permanent protection-from-abuse order, court records show. But the judge did not order her ex-husband to surrender his weapons, even after he violated the protective order.
Hollie Ayers is pushing for a Pennsylvania law that would require people to turn over their guns when judges issue protection orders against them.
Kim Stolfer, president of the Pennsylvania group Firearms Owners Against Crime, said his organization isn’t on board with the idea yet. He said such legislation could be exploited by vindictive ex-spouses who level false allegations of abuse.
“We need some balance, and it’s rapidly going the wrong way,” he said.
In announcing executive action on gun control last month, President Barack Obama said protecting domestic abuse victims is one of his goals. His changes include strengthening the federal background check system, which has denied gun sales 120,000 times since 1998 because of domestic violence convictions.
Federal law has long prohibited felons, those convicted of misdemeanor domestic abuse crimes and individuals subject to permanent protective orders from buying or owning guns. Critics say the federal law is too weak because it does not apply to dating relationships, does not ban guns during temporary protective orders and does not establish procedures for abusers to surrender firearms.
States have been passing their own laws to match or exceed the federal prohibitions, delighting gun control advocates.
“We’ve passed them in blue states, red states and purple states,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety. “We believe they are absolutely lifesaving.”
Some of the strictest state laws create processes for seizing firearms from abusers and extend gun bans to stalkers, abusive dating partners and those who are subject to temporary protective orders.
Studies by public health researchers have generally concluded that such laws, when properly implemented, can reduce deaths.
Gun rights advocates say some of the laws are applied too broadly.
“It encompasses everybody who has a one-time blip in their life, and all of a sudden their gun rights are taken away forever,” said Wes Dunbar, an Iowa lawyer who has represented defendants upset over losing their ability to hunt.
South Carolina and Wisconsin are two of the states dominated by Republicans and with a strong tradition of gun ownership that have taken steps to restrict abusers’ access to guns.
In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker signed a law in 2014 requiring people subject to domestic abuse restraining orders to turn over their guns within 48 hours. The NRA stayed neutral after negotiating language that allows individuals to seek the return of their weapons once restraining orders are lifted.
Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina signed a measure in June that includes a life ban on gun ownership for the most serious domestic violence offenders.
“South Carolina is no longer thinking about the convenience of the abuser,” Haley said when she signed the bill in June. “South Carolina is thinking about strengthening the survivor.”
Recent State Laws on Domestic Abuse, Gun Rights
Specifics of the state laws passed during the last two years that are intended to make it harder for people convicted or suspected of domestic violence to access firearms:
Republican Gov. Robert Bentley approved a measure banning possession of firearms by those convicted of domestic violence offenses, stalking or child abuse, as well as by some individuals who are subject to domestic abuse protection orders. Those provisions were included in a larger pro-gun bill. That bill allowed people with concealed carry permits to keep firearms in their vehicles and repealed some pistol registration requirements, among other changes.
Democratic Gov. Jack Markell signed a bill in October that bans people who commit misdemeanor domestic violence crimes against their current or former dating partners or roommates from possessing guns for five years. The law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, 2017, also will require certain people who are subject to protective orders to surrender their weapons within 24 hours and verify to the court that they have done so.
Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal signed a law in 2014 that prohibits firearm possession for those convicted of “domestic abuse battery” for 10 years after the completion of the sentence. The law also prohibits some people who are subject to domestic violence protective orders from owning guns.
The Legislature passed a law in 2015 that prohibits people who are convicted of domestic violence crimes from owning guns for five years after the completion of their sentences. The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and the Republican-controlled Senate voted to override a veto by Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who argued the five-year ban wasn’t long enough.
Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick signed a law in 2014 that prohibits individuals convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors from buying or owning firearms and ammunition.
Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton signed a law in 2014 banning gun ownership among those who are subject to domestic abuse and child abuse protective orders. It also requires removal or surrender of their firearms.
Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval approved a change in 2015 that prohibits people who are convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence crimes and those who are subject to protective orders from buying and owning guns. Those changes were part of a broader pro-gun bill that repealed Clark County’s handgun registration requirement, among other provisions.
Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan signed a law in 2014 that made domestic violence a specific crime, which triggers the loss of firearms rights upon conviction. Previously, such crimes were often charged as simple assault.
Democratic Gov. Kate Brown signed a law in 2015 that bans gun possession by individuals convicted of certain misdemeanors involving force and threats of force against family members. The law also prohibits individuals who are subject to certain stalking and domestic violence protective orders from owning firearms.
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley signed a law in 2015 that prohibits those convicted of domestic violence from possessing firearms and ammunition, for several years or for life depending on the severity of the crime. The law also bans firearm rights for some individuals who are subject to domestic violence protection orders.
Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a law in 2015 that prohibits individuals convicted of domestic assault, stalking, sexual assault and aggravated assault crimes from owning guns.
Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee signed a law in 2014 that makes those subject to certain protective orders ineligible to own and purchase firearms and to surrender those in their possession.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed a law in 2014 designed to ensure that those who are subject to domestic violence restraining and protective orders surrender their firearms. A judge can issue an arrest warrant for those who do not surrender their guns within 48 hours of an order being issued.
Q&A on State Laws Meant to Keep Guns From Domestic Abusers
During the last two years, 13 states have passed laws meant to help keep firearms out of the hands of domestic abusers.
Federal law strips gun rights from felons, anyone convicted of domestic violence-related misdemeanors and those who are subject to permanent domestic violence protective orders. Many states are passing their own laws that often go further.
Some questions and answers about the legislative push in states:
Why Isn’t the Federal Law Enough?
For starters, barriers to enforcement. Local police and prosecutors do not bring cases under federal law and want their own charging authority under state law. The federal law also does not strip firearms rights from those who abuse their dating partners, those convicted of misdemeanor stalking or those who are subject to temporary protective orders and have not yet had a hearing. In addition, the federal law fails to spell out procedures for ensuring that existing guns are seized or surrendered.
Who Is Pushing for Changes to State Law?
Groups representing domestic violence victims, gun safety advocates and law enforcement officials often join together to push for these measures. They say the laws save lives and protect vulnerable women and children. Politicians from both political parties have supported them.
Are They Getting Any Pushback?
Supporters of gun rights, including the National Rifle Association, object to some of the details. In particular, they argue that people who are subject to temporary protective orders without a hearing to challenge the allegations should not have to give up their guns. They say vindictive ex-spouses could use the process to unfairly take away their ex-spouses’ guns. In addition, some critics say the measures go too far in taking away gun rights from people who commit a crime but are not particularly dangerous.
How Can the Ban on Gun Sales Be Enforced?
States enter data into the national background check system about people who are convicted of crimes that disqualify them from buying guns. That information turns up when licensed dealers conduct background checks and has resulted in more than 120,000 applicants being denied since 1998 for having misdemeanor domestic violence convictions.
Some ineligible domestic abusers have turned to private sellers at gun shows or online who do not conduct background checks to illegally purchase guns. That’s one reason why gun safety advocates want to require background checks on all gun sales.
What Happens to Their Existing Guns?
In some states, the individual is required to turn them over to law enforcement when subject to a ban. In others, they are allowed to transfer them to licensed dealers or give them to third parties for safekeeping. Other laws are silent on this issue, which makes the gun ban hard to enforce.
The NRA Has Negotiated Compromises on Some of These Bills. What Does It Seek in Return?
In some cases, the NRA has pushed for provisions in the law spelling out procedures for individuals to petition to get their guns back once protective orders are lifted. Some of these measures have been passed alongside larger laws expanding gun rights.