POLITICS

What Obama's New Move On Guns Does For Domestic Violence Survivors

More than half of U.S. women who die in gun homicides are killed by intimate partners or family members.
President Barack Obama on gun violence: "We do not have to accept this carnage as the price of freedom."
President Barack Obama on gun violence: "We do not have to accept this carnage as the price of freedom."

Clai Lasher-Sommers was 13 when her abusive stepfather shot her in the back. It took her six months to walk again. On Tuesday, the 58-year-old sat steps from President Barack Obama as he announced his plan to curb gun violence through executive action. A few minutes into his emotional speech, Obama acknowledged Lasher-Sommers' pain -- and the pain of countless other women across the nation -- when he explicitly named domestic abuse as a source of deadly gun violence in the U.S.

Lasher-Sommers was relieved.

"As women who end up living in domestic violence situations, one of the things that happens is that you lose all power," she said. "When you don’t hear your government officials talking about it, you are just silenced one more time."

Obama’s executive action on guns, while modest, includes a number of proposals that advocates and gun violence prevention experts say could help protect domestic violence survivors from armed abusers. That’s important, as research has found that the presence of a gun makes it five times more likely that a woman will be murdered by her abuser.

A proposal to expand the definition of who is engaged in the business of selling guns -- and therefore must be licensed and conduct background checks -- could reduce domestic-related gun violence, said Allison Anderman, staff attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

"It means that more people will have to get a dealer license," she said. "Those people are more likely now to catch domestic abusers who try to buy guns, and it will limit the number of domestic abusers who will be able to buy guns without a background check."

Under Obama’s plan, Anderman added, local authorities will be notified when prohibited individuals try to buy a gun.

"Hopefully, what this will do is enable law enforcement to catch domestic abusers who knowingly lie on the federal form they are required to fill out in order to buy a gun," she said.  

Federal law already prohibits individuals convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors or subject to a permanent protective order from owning or buying guns, but the system has some serious gaps. Currently, prohibited abusers can skirt restrictions by purchasing guns from private sellers at gun shows or online, where they aren’t required to undergo a background check.

As women who end up living in domestic violence situations, one of the thing that happens is that you lose all power. Clai Lasher-Sommers

Ron LeGrand, vice president of public policy at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, said another key proposal involves incentivizing states to provide complete records about domestic violence crimes to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, so that abusers who aren’t allowed to buy guns are flagged.

"We need to know who is out there, and if they are convicted of a domestic violence act. If we don’t know that, the background check is not as effective and efficient as it needs to be," LeGrand said. "It is not going to save everybody, but it is a step in the right direction."

Thirty-eight percent fewer women are shot to death by intimate partners in states where background checks are required for all handgun sales, he added.

Domestic violence is responsible for only a narrow slice of gun violence in the U.S., but it's highly significant for women: Most women who die in gun homicides are killed by intimate partners or other family members. In 2011, over half of all women killed in gun violence were victims of domestic violence. Indeed, in the first few days of 2016, about 10 women across the country were shot and killed in apparent domestic homicides, according to a cursory search of local news reports.

Mass shootings in the U.S., meaning those in which four or more people are killed, are often related to domestic violence. In 57 percent of mass shootings, the shooter targeted either a family member or an intimate partner, according to a Huffington Post analysis of mass shooting data.

Clai Lasher-Sommers, pictured at the White House, holds up the photo of another domestic violence shooting survivor, Kate Ran
Clai Lasher-Sommers, pictured at the White House, holds up the photo of another domestic violence shooting survivor, Kate Ranta. 

In one immediate step to protect domestic violence survivors, Attorney General Loretta Lynch issued a memo this week directing every U.S. attorney’s office to "redouble" efforts to prevent abusers from obtaining firearms.

"Continued aggressive enforcement of laws designed to help combat domestic violence, particularly those laws related to illegal firearms possession, is an important responsibility of the [United States attorney offices]," it read, in part.

Lasher-Sommers said Obama’s new gun measures offer some hope, but she acknowledged the work was just beginning.

"I want to know that my children aren’t going to get shot and taken from me," she said. "I want to grow old with my children."

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Melissa Jeltsen covers domestic violence and other issues related to women's health, safety and security. Tips? Feedback? Send an email or follow her on Twitter.

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