Around noon on New Year’s Eve, Laura Ponce got the phone call she had dreaded for years. Her daughter, Laura Acevez, 21, had been found unconscious in her apartment in Eureka Springs, Ark., lying in a pool of blood. Her 5-month-old son was discovered uninjured next to her body.
Acevez, described by her family as a gentle mother with a near-constant smile, worked at a Tyson Foods factory deboning chicken, but had dreams of becoming a nurse. She did not make it to 2013. She died in the hospital that night, leaving behind three young children. A .22 caliber bullet was found lodged in her skull.
Local police tracked down her ex-boyfriend, Victor Acuna-Sanchez, an 18-year-old under a court order to stay away from Acevez stemming from two prior domestic battery arrests.
Acuna-Sanchez was found hiding in the shower at his mother’s cabin, armed with a .22-caliber handgun -- a gun he never should have been able to own.
As Ponce tells it, Acuna-Sanchez harassed her daughter from the moment the two started dating. He allegedly strangled her, viciously beat her with a baseball bat and dragged her behind a car. The last week before she was killed, Acevez told her mother that he smashed the front windshield of her car with a hammer and poured bleach in her gas tank while his infant son watched. Ponce also says he emotionally tormented her daughter, warning her over and over that he would kill her and her kids if she went to the police.
Under federal law, individuals who have been convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence offense or who are subject to a domestic violence restraining order like Acuna-Sanchez can’t legally buy or possess firearms. But an estimated 30 to 40 percent of guns are purchased without a background check, making thorough enforcement of the law all but impossible.
“Gun sellers have no way of knowing if someone is a domestic abuser unless there is a background check,” says Jonathan Lowy, director of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence's Legal Action Project. “This is a real problem.”
As the national spotlight has turned to gun violence in the wake of the Newtown, Conn. massacre, in Congress, there has been some discussion of how gun reform can help domestically abused women. Last week, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) -- chief sponsor of the Violence Against Women Act, expected to be reconsidered this week -- made the connection between gun violence and domestic violence. Leahy testified in a hearing that in states that require background checks for handgun sales, 38 percent fewer women are shot by their partners.
Yet others have argued that more firearm regulations would make it harder for women to protect themselves -- that guns make women more safe, not less.
The evidence paints a much different picture.
According to 2010 FBI data, firearms -- and specifically handguns -- are the most common weapons used to murder women. In the U.S., 64 percent of women who are murdered each year die at the hands of a family member or intimate partner. In situations involving domestic violence, having a gun in the home makes a woman eight times more likely to be killed.
Through Google and Nexis searches, The Huffington Post has tracked gun-related homicides and accidents throughout the U.S. since the schoolhouse massacre in Newtown, Conn., on the morning of Dec. 14.
In the first eight weeks after the school shooting, more than 90 women were shot to death by their partners or family members.
In Tucson, a woman was shot and killed in a parking lot by a man against whom she had a restraining order. In Minnesota, a man shot his wife and sawed her body into pieces after she told him she was leaving him.
In California, a heated argument at a bus stop ended when a husband shot his wife, then turned the gun on himself in front of a handful of bystanders. It was 11 a.m. In Florida, a woman was found shot twice in the torso, her boyfriend lying nearby with a single shot to the head. The couple was on the verge of breaking up, family members reported.
In Idaho, a man called 911 to confess to shooting his wife. As police arrived at his home, they heard a single gunshot as he took his own life. In Kansas, a child called the police to report gunfire. When officers arrived at the rural farmhouse, they found a husband and wife dead in a murder-suicide, and the child hiding in a closet.
An alarming study from 2002 found that while the U.S. represented around 32 percent of the female population among 25 high-income countries, it accounted for 84 percent of all female firearm homicides. “The difference in female homicide victimization rates between the U.S. and these other industrialized nations is very large and is closely tied to levels of gun ownership,” explained lead author David Hemenway.
Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, says she is convinced universal background checks would help keep guns away from domestic abusers. “Seeing as 58 percent of domestic violence homicides are committed with firearms, I think there’s a very high likelihood if we go to universal background checks, including private sales, we are going to reduce deaths," she told The Huffington Post.
Still, the National Rifle Association continues to oppose universal background checks.
Even if such measures were to become a reality, law enforcement would face another major barrier: how to get already-purchased guns out of the hands of abusers.
Under federal law, convicted domestic abusers are advised by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to “immediately dispose of their firearms and ammunition,” but unless the state implements a law to actually seize their guns, such notices often go unheeded.
Jayne Ann Kita, director of the Arkansas Coalition Against Domestic Violence, explains the ineffectiveness of the law. “It’s an unfunded mandate,” she says. “In Arkansas there’s been some discussion but there is no organized system for the removal of those weapons or a place to keep them. There is no one charged with that responsibility.”
Women who are concerned about a domestic abuser owning a gun illegally have limited recourse, according to Kita. “We advise they mention it to a judge and ask for the guns to be turned in, and make local law enforcement aware of any guns,” she says.
But Acevez's mother believes that alerting the police about illegal guns did little to save her daughter.
“I told [the police] he has guns. Not one, but many,” Ponce says. “The whole town knew. They had everything in their hands to stop him and they did nothing.”
Acuna-Sanchez previously had been charged with aggravated assault and third-degree battery for two alleged attacks against Acevez. Three weeks before her death, he was arrested for violating a no-contact order. Despite a long record of domestic violence against Acevez, he was released without bail. Carroll County Sheriff Bob Grudek did not return multiple calls for comment.
Ponce blames the local authorities for not taking the threat against her daughter more seriously. If police had confiscated his firearms, she says, maybe her daughter would still be alive.
“She was beat up many, many times. But this last time, he premeditated everything and he brought a gun. He decided that was going to be the end of it,” she says.
According to Ponce, the final confrontation came after Acuna-Sanchez learned Acevez was saving money to move out of town in an effort to escape him. She did not get the chance.
Her mother is now the primary caretaker for two of Acevez's children: Josie, who is 7, and her baby boy with Acuna-Sanchez, Jordan, who she says screams in his sleep. “The doctor thinks he’s remembering, even though he’s so small,” she says. “He saw everything.” Acevez’s other son, 5-year-old Christopher, is staying with his father.
Ponce is accepting clothing donations on a Facebook page in remembrance of Acevez, and community members have flooded the page with memories of the young mother.
“Everyone loved her,” Ponce says. “She always had a smile on her face. She never had any trouble with the law. Loving this guy, that was her biggest mistake.”