Domestic Violence Is Not Merely a Type of 'Violence'

If a victim of domestic violence does not exhibit broken bones, bruises, or other visceral signs of abuse, has he or she still experienced domestic violence? Absolutely.
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"Domestic violence is not merely a type of 'violence.' It is term of art encompassing acts that one might not characterize as "violent" in a non-domestic context." -- Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor, United States vs. Castleman

Recently, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled to bar any domestic violence offender from possessing a firearm, regardless of the level of the criminal charge or severity of the violence.

While this ruling might seem like common sense, it holds tremendous implications for how our legal system understands and defines domestic violence. It is easy to assume that domestic violence exists only where physical signs of violence are evident. If a victim of domestic violence does not exhibit broken bones, bruises, or other visceral signs of abuse, has he or she still experienced domestic violence?


In acknowledging that domestic violence is not only defined by severe acts of physical violence, but a range of acts of varying severity including "pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping and hitting," Justice Sotomayor recognizes that domestic violence is rarely an isolated incident, and a small push or pinch that might seem like "no big deal" can easily escalate into a much more dangerous situation.

Of course, even this ruling and the federal law that informs it leave critical gaps that could affect the safety and security of survivors of domestic violence. At present, the federal law necessitates that a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence must involve physical abuse. In reality, domestic violence encompasses a far more complex matrix of power and control.

At Sanctuary for Families, we've known this for as long as our counselors and lawyers have been providing services to those affected by domestic violence. Domestic violence is a pattern of gender-based intimate partner, dating, or family violence with a central dynamic of power and control. Whether that power and control manifests itself as sheer physical violence, non-physical manipulation, isolation, financial abuse, verbal abuse, or a combination of factors, when it takes place in the context of an intimate or family relationship, it is domestic violence.

Nearly one-third of all women murdered in the United States in a given year are killed by an intimate partner. At least half of those women die from a gunshot. The chances of being murdered by an intimate partner increase five-fold when the abuser has access to a gun. The news stories speak to the reality of the situation: just read about Karen Cox Smith, Laura Acevez and Barbara Diane Dye, all women whose abusers were able to access guns even after orders of protection or other domestic violence complaints were filed. All three women are now dead.

There is no doubt that the Supreme Court's ruling in United States vs. Castleman will save lives. But to really make a difference for survivors of domestic violence, our legislators, law enforcement and judges need to develop a definition of domestic violence that truly reflects the crime in all of its forms.

Click here for more facts and stats on the intersection between domestic violence and gun violence.

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