This State Will Alert Domestic Violence Victims if Their Abuser Tries to Buy a Gun

Advocates explain how the legislation helps survivors of domestic violence better plan for their own safety and the safety of those closest to them.

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Jul 18 2017, 7:39pm

Photo by Yuri Smityuk via Getty Images

In March, domestic violence survivor Paula Harwood testified in a senate hearing in favor of a bill in Washington State that would require victims be notified when their abusers attempt to purchase a firearm. She has a permanent restraining order against her abuser, and while the abuse she suffered occurred decades ago, she said she still felt like "somebody punched me in the stomach" when she learned he'd tried to buy a gun but was denied.

"I lost my breath," she said, "and the only thing I could think about was, 'Oh my God. Oh my God, he tried.'"

Another woman, Courtney Weaver, told legislators that in 2010, her then boyfriend shot her in the face and arm with a hollow-point .45 in 2010. She also supported the bill because having the notification would "help me safety-plan" when he's released in prison in 2019.

Read more: When Domestic Violence Victims Call Police for Help—and Get Evicted Instead

Thanks in part to these and other testimonies, starting July 23, licensed gun dealers will be required to notify the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs within five days when someone fails a background check. They in turn must inform anyone with court protection orders against the applicant, The Trace reports.

Federal law prohibits anyone convicted of a felony or misdemeanor crime of domestic violence, or under a final protective order for domestic violence from owning a gun. But as the bill's sponsor pointed out, that doesn't mean people don't try. "We want there to be criminal consequences if you knowingly, illegally try to purchase a firearm," Rep. Drew Hansen told the AP. "There's no mechanism for that to happen right now. This bill creates that mechanism."

In 2013 and 2014, more than half of the guns involved in domestic-violence deaths were owned by perpetrators who weren't allowed to have them.

According to data compiled by the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCADV), 54 percent of the 678 domestic-violence homicides over a 17-year span (1997-2014) involved guns. In 2013 and 2014, more than half of the guns involved in domestic-violence deaths were owned by perpetrators who weren't allowed to have them.

Tamaso Johnson is the public policy director at WSCADV. He says giving survivors of domestic violence the option to be notified if an abuser attempts to illegally purchase a gun allows them to better plan for their own safety and the safety of those closest to them. Ultimately, he says, the new law has the potential to "save lives and empower survivors."

"Information about an abusive partner's access to firearms is widely considered one of the key details most predictive of lethality risk," he tells Broadly. "This information, provided in a timely manner, could empower survivors to leverage their own expertise and take additional steps at a time of potentially elevated risk."

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The Violence Policy Center releases annual statistics on the number of female homicide victims killed by men for Domestic Violence Awareness Month. In 2014, the last year studied, more than 1,600 women nationwide were murdered by men—more than 90 percent of them knew their assailant, and the most common weapon was a gun.

"The bottom line," Johnson says, "is that we believe victims, survivors of domestic violence, are the experts on their own lives and we should do everything in our power as a society to give them the tools, information, and opportunity to act with agency and self-determination in order to make the choices they need to stay safe. Whether or not an abusive partner has access to firearms is a factor that is highly correlated to risk of serious or lethal violence occurring. This bill gives victims the opportunity to have important additional information about potential safety risks, and act accordingly, whatever that may mean in their particular situation."