This story was co-published with The Guardian.

Paige Mitchell and Bradley Gray forged a bond over tragedy. Late one Sunday in October 2009, Mitchell’s husband borrowed a motorcycle from a neighbor on a whim, rumbled down a back road in rural Moundville, Alabama, and careened to his death. Almost exactly a year later, at almost precisely the same time of night, Gray’s wife died on the same county byway when her car crashed into a tree. Fate seemed to push Mitchell and Gray together, making their relationship hard to sever even as it descended into dysfunction. 

Mitchell treated Gray’s son, Bradley Jr., like one of her own children, bringing him on outings with her daughters, Kayla and Kaci. Gray, who worked for a construction company, mowed Mitchell’s lawn and did repairs around her house. They went to concerts and cruised the Black Warrior River in Gray’s boat. Mitchell, a hairdresser with a gregarious personality, was glad to have someone to laugh with. But a darkness hovered over their relationship. Gray drank – a lot. And when he drank, his temper exploded. After beating a friend with a baseball bat in 2014, he was charged with felony assault, though the case was eventually dismissed. 

Gray tried rehab, but he couldn’t stay sober, Mitchell’s family said. Many of the people who loved him gave up. Mitchell felt sorry for him, her family said; like the German shepherd she rescued and the foster children with disabilities she took in, she thought she could help him heal.

Paige Mitchell (left) and her 14-year-old daughter, Kaci (right), of Moundville, Ala. Credit:

After Gray hit her in the chin with a metal hand-grip exerciser, bruising her face and leaving her worried she would lose her tooth, Mitchell began to give up, too. But Moundville is tiny, and they kept running into each other. On the night of July 9, 2015, she went to Gray’s home to pick up her car and collect her belongings after another split. This time, according to police, he showed her a Glock in a holster and threatened to use it: “I will blow you away.” Police arrested Gray at his house and confiscated his gun, evidence of a potential crime. Prosecutors charged him with third-degree domestic violence, punishable by up to a year in jail. 

Then Gray bumped into Moundville’s police chief, Ken Robertson, in a convenience store and started “really ranting,” Robertson recounted in a deposition five years later. Gray called Robertson and his officers “you son of bitches” and demanded that they return his gun. “Let me see what’s going on and we will rectify the situation,” Robertson told him. 

Back at the station, Robertson read Gray’s arrest report – and, over the objections of another officer, he handed back the gun. The former police chief, who is now a sheriff’s deputy for Hale County, didn’t respond to requests for an interview. But in his deposition, he offered an explanation of sorts: Police didn’t have a search warrant for the weapon, he said. In his view, “there was zero legal reason to keep it.” 

In fact, under Alabama law, police could have – and should have – sought a court order to retain the gun through a process known as condemnation, said Hale County District Attorney Michael Jackson, whose jurisdiction includes most of Moundville. Giving back the gun, Jackson said, “was a big mistake.”  

Former Moundville, Ala., Police Chief Ken Robertson returned a confiscated gun to Bradley Gray after Gray was arrested and charged with domestic violence in July 2015. Credit: Gray Media Group Inc./WBRC

That error was compounded a few weeks later after Gray pleaded guilty to the domestic violence charge. Along with a 30-day suspended jail sentence and a year’s probation, he was ordered to enroll in anger management classes. The timing was crucial: Under a state law that took effect the previous week, on Sept. 1, 2015, Gray’s domestic violence misdemeanor conviction meant he was no longer allowed to possess a firearm or have one “under (his) control.” As a convicted abuser, Gray was now also permanently barred from possessing a firearm under federal law. 

Bradley Gray. Credit: Hale County District Attorney

If Robertson’s department had held on to the Glock, the rest of the story might have been different. But Gray had his gun – and the new Alabama statute didn’t spell out a procedure for him to surrender it. Nor was there any requirement for law enforcement to seize it. In his deposition, Robertson acknowledged that Gray was no longer allowed to have a firearm, but he said he didn’t follow up on the case: “We don’t have the authority to go and start checking everybody that’s been convicted.” He also admitted that he’d never notified Mitchell that he’d given back the Glock. The law didn’t require it.

A little more than a year later, Mitchell, then 37, ran into Gray unexpectedly at a friend’s place and made it clear one more time that the relationship was over. “Brad was trying to convince her otherwise, and she was moving on,” said Sylvia Ray, Mitchell’s aunt and adoptive mother.

Hours later, just before dawn on Jan. 26, 2017, Gray broke into Mitchell’s house through the back door, according to her family. When Mitchell’s foster child woke and went to check on the noise, Gray told her to go back to bed. In the living room, he found 14-year-old Kaci, who had been asleep on a couch by the front door, and shot her in the neck, according to her autopsy. 

Next he turned the Glock on Mitchell, firing a single bullet into the back of her head. 

The shooting was over so quickly that 10-year-old Kayla slept through it. She discovered the bodies of her mother and sister when she woke the next morning to get ready for school.

As officers waited on his front porch soon after to question him, Gray fired one last shot with the gun he wasn’t supposed to have. He died at a hospital three days later.

A community memorial baseball game in April 2017 honors Paige and Kaci Mitchell. Credit: Erin Nelson/USA Today Network

Every 16 hours somewhere in the U.S., a woman is fatally shot by a current or former intimate partner. The numbers have been soaring: Gun homicides by intimate partners jumped 58% over the last decade, according to never-before-published FBI data analyzed for Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting by James Alan Fox, a professor and criminologist at Northeastern University. The pandemic has been an especially lethal period for abuse victims, Fox found; gun homicides involving intimate partners rose a stunning 25% in 2020 compared with the previous year, to the highest level in almost three decades. Women accounted for more than two-thirds of the victims shot and killed by intimate partners last year.

Intimate Partner Shooting Deaths Are Soaring

Domestic violence gun homicides fell sharply in the 1990s, then began to rise in the Obama years, reaching a 26-year high during the pandemic. The change in killings by other methods has been less pronounced over time.

Source: Unpublished FBI data analyzed for Reveal by criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University
Credit: Reveal

Many of these killings involve offenders, such as Bradley Gray, who were legally prohibited from having guns, a Reveal investigation has found. From 2017 through 2020, Reveal identified at least 110 intimate partners and others who were fatally shot by offenders using weapons they weren’t allowed to possess under federal and, in some cases, state law.  

The true numbers aren’t known; the federal government doesn’t track fatal shootings by intimate partners who shouldn’t have firearms, and state data is incomplete, inaccessible or nonexistent. To find these cases, Reveal amassed information on hundreds of gun homicides around the U.S. from domestic violence coalitions, news accounts and state agencies, then vetted each shooter using criminal background checks and thousands of pages of police and court records. The number of cases we found is almost certainly a vast undercount, in large part because we were able to obtain limited information from only 21 states, and crucial records in many cases were missing. 

The victims, nearly all of them women, represent a cross-section of race and class. They include a 26-year-old factory worker from Arkansas whose boyfriend shot her in the back of the head in front of her two infants. A nurse in Washington state who was about to move to Missouri when her estranged husband gunned down her and her mother. Seventeen people in the database were killed during the pandemic, including a Milwaukee mother and four teenagers slain by a convicted felon with a 12-gauge shotgun. Four of the victims were pregnant. Also killed were bystanders, police officers and a 4-year-old girl. 

“Every one of these deaths is preventable,” said Natalie Nanasi, an associate professor of law at Southern Methodist University who specializes in gender-based violence. “It’s absolutely outrageous that we’re losing people in this way, because we know what we need to do in order to prevent it from happening. We have laws on the books. We’re just not actually enforcing them.”

Intimate Partner Homicides in the U.S.

At least 122,000 Americans have been slain since 1976, with more than 2,800 killings in 2020 alone.

Source: Unpublished FBI data analyzed for Reveal by criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University
Credit: Reveal

Guns are the No. 1 weapon in domestic violence killings in the U.S. – just owning a firearm makes an abuser five times more likely to take a partner’s life. People with a history of violence against a partner, including stalking or strangulation, are also far more likely to go on to commit more heinous acts. Earlier this year, researchers reported that more than two-thirds of recent mass shootings in the U.S. involved perpetrators who killed partners or relatives or had a history of domestic abuse. There’s an obvious antidote, said David Martin, who supervises the domestic violence unit for the King County prosecuting attorney’s office in Seattle. “The lowest-hanging fruit in this entire conversation is making sure that people at high risk do not have access to firearms,” he said. “This is the easiest thing that anybody can do.”

But in a country with some of the highest levels of gun ownership in the world, deeply divided by politics and culture and increasingly hostile to the rights of women, enacting comprehensive gun safety measures – universal background checks, licensing and permitting, bans on military-style weapons, and national databases to track who owns firearms and how they’re used – has been politically unfeasible. Indeed, Robyn Thomas, executive director of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, sees an opposite trend: “We’re going in the wrong direction in some states and repealing gun regulations.” 

Thus, the U.S. relies on an amalgam of narrower laws and policies that often end up working against the abuse victims they’re supposed to protect, creating not just gaps in protection, but gaps in accountability.

The Gun Control Act of 1968, enacted in the aftermath of political assassinations that roiled the country in the 1960s, makes it illegal for people convicted of a felony to possess a firearm. A quarter-century later, as part of the Violence Against Women Act, Congress barred people subject to family violence protection orders from having firearms. Two years after that, lawmakers led by then-New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg expanded the federal gun restrictions to include some people convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors, a critical change given that many abusers avoid more severe charges through plea agreements. The passage of the latter two bills helped drive down the number of women shot and killed by their partners starting in the 1990s, said Fox, the Northeastern criminologist. 

But the number of domestic violence homicides has climbed again in recent years, exposing the system’s fundamental weaknesses. 

Every state has passed some version of the federal ban on felons having firearms. In addition, in 33 states and the District of Columbia, it’s illegal for people convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors to possess guns. But federal gun laws and the vast majority of state statutes share a glaring flaw: They don’t address how to get guns away from people who aren’t supposed to have them. They don’t say how offenders who are banned from possessing firearms should surrender them or spell out procedures for confiscating them. They don’t create the legal infrastructure that is essential for keeping abuse victims, their families and communities safe from dangerous offenders.

Instead, around much of the country, these gun laws are enforced on an honor system that relies on people who are prohibited from possessing firearms to disarm themselves. 

“You are trusting somebody who is not worthy of being taken at their word,” said Democratic U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell, who spent seven years working as a prosecutor in Alameda County, California. “And that has been to the peril of domestic violence victims.”

U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., is a former prosecutor in Alameda County, Calif. Credit: Al Jazeera English/Fault Lines

The notion of leaving it up to offenders to turn in their guns of their own volition is absurd, law professor Nanasi added. “It’s a fairy tale.”

Intimate partner violence is, by its nature, the most local of crimes, and states and local jurisdictions are where the vast majority of domestic violence cases are handled. But 17 states do not make it illegal for people convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors to possess guns. Even in states with misdemeanor bans, the restrictions can be significantly weaker than federal law. For example, South Dakota bars people from possessing a firearm for just a year after they’re convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor; in South Carolina, the length of the ban depends on the crime’s severity. In Arizona, the gun prohibition applies only while offenders are on probation.

Hale County District Attorney Michael Jackson outside a courthouse in Alabama. Credit: Andi Rice for Reveal

And local and state officials can’t enforce federal gun laws. “It’s a jurisdictional thing,” said Alabama district attorney Michael Jackson. “As a general rule, the feds are the ones who enforce their own laws. … We’re the prosecutors for the state, and we enforce state law.”

How State Gun Laws Leave Abuse Victims Unprotected

Every state has some sort of ban on felons possessing firearms. But big gaps remain. Only 33 states and the District of Columbia bar people convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors from having guns for some period of time. Seven states require prohibited possessors to give up their firearms. Three states require proof of surrender.

Source: Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence
Credit: Reveal

But the federal criminal justice system is inundated, and the volume of cases just involving felons caught with guns is staggering. Part of the problem is that it’s easy to obtain a weapon, even for felons, through private gun transfers that don’t require background checks. 

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigates federal firearms violations when it learns of them – for instance, when local police respond to a domestic abuse incident and discover an offender has a gun illegally – but none of its agents focus exclusively on domestic violence. “A lot of the time, firearms violations are only detected when they have resulted in violent crime,” Thomas Chittum, the ATF’s acting deputy director, said in an interview. 

Nor does the ATF or any other federal agency track the number of people prohibited from possessing firearms who go on to kill their intimate partners.

“Oh, I don’t know that number,” Chittum said. “I’m not sure anyone knows that number with precision.”

Jazmine Willock (center) and her sisters, Rosa (left) and Domonique (right). Jazmine was killed by her boyfriend, Taris Ford-Dillard, in January 2018 in Tucson, Ariz. Credit: Courtesy of Annette Sisson

Taris Ford-Dillard was a former community college basketball team captain who, at 6-foot-3, towered over his partner, Jazmine Willock. But in every other way, it was clear that she was the one with the gigantic spirit and he was the one who felt small.

Willock was a gifted artist whose high school self-portrait won the Congressional Art Competition and hung in the U.S. Capitol. She had a green belt in taekwondo and a kick so powerful that it earned her a spot on the U.S. Virgin Islands Women’s National Soccer team, playing for the island territory where she grew up. She went to college at 17, moving to Arizona, where her mother and siblings lived, to finish her degree. She bought a house at 21; to pay the mortgage, she juggled a server job at The Cheesecake Factory with a gig as a physical therapy assistant in Tucson. Her mother, Annette Sisson, can’t recall how the two met, but Willock thought Ford-Dillard was handsome, smart and charming. Sisson was less impressed: “Narcissistic people are always charming.” 

Jazmine Willock. Credit: Courtesy of Annette Sisson

From early in their romance, Ford-Dillard showed signs of having a jealous, controlling personality, Willock’s family said. He seethed if she glanced at another man and tagged along wherever she went, even insisting on driving her to work. He also had a worrisome history of abuse; he was convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence assault charge after punching his previous live-in girlfriend in the face and shoving her to the ground. Ford-Dillard was ordered to undergo domestic violence counseling and sentenced to a year of probation. This 2014 conviction meant he was permanently prohibited from possessing a gun under federal law and barred under Arizona law while he was on probation.

By July 2017, it was clear the relationship with Willock had turned abusive as well. During one especially terrifying incident, she told police, Ford-Dillard flung her across the bed and onto the floor, ripping her shirt, squeezing her neck in a headlock and smashing her face with a shoe. 

Then, Willock recounted, he grabbed the handgun he always seemed to carry despite the federal ban. 

“I should, I should,” he said, pointing the gun at her. 

“Please stop, please stop, please stop,” Willock begged. 

“Who’s going to save you?” Ford-Dillard taunted.

Jazmine Willock and Taris Ford-Dillard. Credit: Courtesy of Annette Sisson

To escape that night, Willock told police, she bolted out the sliding back door, leaped over a cinder-block fence and sprinted through overgrown bushes across a dry, rocky riverbed into the desert, until she reached a shopping center, where she flagged down someone who called for  help. She urged police to contact her mother, because Ford-Dillard had threatened to hurt her, too. When Tucson officers arrested Ford-Dillard the next day, they recovered a gun magazine from the trunk of his Pontiac Grand Prix, but no weapon. A little over a week later, a grand jury indicted him for felony aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and domestic violence kidnapping. 

At his initial hearing after his arrest, Tucson Magistrate Nikki Chayet, who’d been a magistrate judge for almost 30 years, laid out the conditions of Ford-Dillard’s release on $7,500 bail: “You’re to commit no acts of domestic violence, possess no firearms, have no contact with Jazmine of any sort, except for legal proceedings, and you’re not to go back to within three blocks of her residence. Do you understand that?”

His response was a forceful “yes.”

But that was it. Chayet didn’t ask him about the gun. She didn’t order him to turn it over. Chayet declined to answer questions for this story. 

The reality is that nothing in Arizona law prohibits someone convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor from possessing a firearm once he completes his probation. Nor do Arizona judges have the authority to require offenders to provide proof that they surrendered their guns. Local laws in Pima County don’t require proof either. 

“I see this all the time, where the way the law currently works, we’re trusting abusers will relinquish their weapons,” said Negar Katirai, a clinical law professor and director of the Domestic Violence Law Clinic at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “It just doesn’t make sense. It leaves victims extremely vulnerable.”

Meanwhile, fearing for her own safety, Willock’s mother sought a protection order that same day in Pima County court in which she urged a second judge to explicitly prohibit Ford-Dillard from having any firearms. “He made a verbal threat against my life, to my daughter,” Sisson wrote in her petition. “He also threaten (sic) and hurt her as well. Always has a gun.” 

But when Justice of the Peace Charlene Pesquiera issued an injunction against harassment, it didn’t include a firearm prohibition. 

Pesquiera declined an interview, but noted in an email that Chayet already had ordered Ford-Dillard not to have a gun at his initial appearance that day. Willock’s mother scoffed at that excuse. 

“I think she’s passing the buck and blaming someone else,” Sisson said. “She fell short because it was her job to protect me and Jazmine at that moment.”  

The next time Willock and Ford-Dillard came to the attention of police, nearly four months had passed. A video from a neighbor’s Ring doorbell camera captured Willock running naked from her home late one night in early November, screaming, “Help me! Help me!” as Ford-Dillard grabbed her and steered her back inside. 

Still under a felony indictment in the earlier incident, Ford-Dillard was quickly charged with three additional misdemeanor domestic violence offenses. But he didn’t surrender to police until just before Christmas, and once again, no police officer, prosecutor or judge intervened to try to take away his weapon – or even acknowledged that he was already under indictment for assaulting Willock with a gun. On a form releasing him from custody, Tucson Magistrate Susan Shetter ordered Ford-Dillard to stay away from Willock and her home and not to commit any more acts of domestic violence. But the judge didn’t check the “possess no firearms” box on the form. Shetter declined to comment on the case. 

A month later, when Willock didn’t show up at work for two days, her boss called police, who notified Sisson, who raced to her daughter’s house. No one answered the door, so Sisson broke in through the living room window. Then she opened Willock’s bedroom door. 

“Who is that girl?” Sisson wondered at first, peering through the darkness. 

Then she recognized her 22-year-old daughter, lying naked on the floor. The beige carpet beneath her chest was crimson. A gunshot at close range had seared a black muzzle imprint into her chest. At least five other bullets had ripped through her head, hand and thigh. Ford-Dillard was slumped on the floor, too, dead from a self-inflicted wound. Between them on the floor was the pistol no one in law enforcement had taken away from him.

Still tacked to the back wall of the garage were two paper targets riddled with practice shots from Ford-Dillard’s gun. A large can on the floor brimmed with spent shell casings.

Bullets collected from the scene where Taris Ford-Dillard killed Jazmine Willock and himself. Credit: Tucson Police Department

A recording of Willock’s interview with Tucson police after the November incident shows why making sure abusers surrender their weapons is crucial. The two officers were sympathetic toward Willock and disdainful of Ford-Dillard, gently probing her about why she didn’t push him out of her life. Willock gave an answer that police and victims advocates hear over and over. “I keep thinking I can help him,” she sobbed, adding: “I know he loves me, but it’s just – he’s messed up.” 

What do you think is going to happen after this incident? 

“I feel like I can’t escape, I feel like I can’t leave. … I want to help him and I want to be here, but I just, like, I feel like I just keep digging a bigger hole and I don’t know what to do now.”

Well, you need to do what’s going to make you happy.

“I’ve thought of moving, and I don’t know how to do this.”

It’s a scenario that plays out all the time in police stations and courtrooms and among family It’s a scenario that plays out all the time in police stations and courtrooms and among family members and friends: Victims are asked, “Why don’t you just leave?” Yet the question fails to acknowledge the complexities of domestic violence – the crimes are deeply intimate, unseen and easy to mask; the victim and the abuser are often emotionally and financially intertwined. It’s a question that “makes us feel better, that we would be different. It is victim blaming,” said April Zeoli, an associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University. “Why didn’t the justice system use the tools available to it to remove the guns they knew were illegal?”

Jazmine Willock’s mother, Annette Sisson (left), and sisters Rosa (center) and Domonique (right) visit Jazmine’s gravesite. Credit: Al Jazeera English/Fault Lines

What’s more, fighting back often intensifies the abuse. At its core, intimate partner violence is about power and control. Disrupting this power dynamic – for example, by reporting the abuse to police or trying to leave – can make the situation far more volatile and dangerous, ample research shows.

“It is an incredibly difficult and challenging and high-risk moment in (an abuser’s) life,” said David Martin, the King County prosecutor. “And when they have a firearm in their hand, the likelihood that they’re going to terribly harm that person or terribly harm themselves is exponentially greater.”

Removing a gun greatly reduces the chances that an episode will escalate, he said. “You’re putting barriers in place. … You’re making it harder to act on an urge to kill someone.”

But just seven states require the surrender of firearms. Only California, Connecticut and Nevada explicitly order offenders to prove to courts or law enforcement that they’ve turned in their guns. Another half-dozen local jurisdictions require proof of surrender, including Seattle/King County, Denver and Harris County, Texas, where Houston is located.

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Federal gun laws are also silent on relinquishment. Swalwell has reintroduced legislation, the No Guns for Abusers Act, which would direct the federal government to develop best practices for states to use for firearm relinquishment in domestic abuser cases. But the legislation has already died in Congress – twice. Even if the current version passes, neither the federal government nor states would be required to adopt any of the recommended procedures. 

“Today in America, the right for an abuser to own a gun is greater than the right of a victim to be safe,” Swalwell said in an interview. “We are truly flying in the blind.”

Without national leadership, some local officials have tried to come up with solutions suited to their own communities. In 2015, after a rash of domestic violence homicides in the Dallas area, then-Judge Roberto Cañas and a few of his colleagues grew tired of doing only what Texas state law required: verbally warning people with felony and misdemeanor domestic violence convictions that they couldn’t possess a firearm.

“Even if everyone knew that a guy had an arsenal of guns he shouldn’t have, there was no follow-up,” Cañas said.

So they launched a gun surrender program, requiring judges to press defendants on whether they had any firearms and, if they did, to turn them over. The goal: to collect 2,400 guns over four years. But the result was disappointing, netting fewer than 200 weapons. After Cañas left the bench in September 2018, the program largely petered out. 

“Part of it is courage,” he said. “You have to put yourself out there to do something a little different. It’s going to take a little drive from elected officials and the criminal justice system.”

Dave Keck, project director for the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence and Firearms, has seen a similar pattern in many communities considering relinquishment programs: Initial enthusiasm gives way to excuses and inertia. “Relinquishment should be automatic,” he said. “But there is a general reluctance to do it.”

Some law enforcement officials cite practicalities, telling Keck, “We can’t store all those guns.” Others argue that their area has a “gun culture.” “Are they trying to say it’s OK to shoot your wife or your girlfriend with a gun?” Keck said. “If you’re violent, particularly toward people you love, you (shouldn’t) have a firearm. Gun culture doesn’t change that.”

One of the biggest obstacles, Keck says, is the gender bias that pervades the criminal justice system. “The whole ‘he said, she said’ implies that women lie. Society expects women to take the fall,” he said. “The very thought of taking someone’s gun away from them, and at the same time doing it because of domestic violence, inflames a lot of people.”

There’s no doubt that Chad Absher should never have had the rifle he is accused of using to kill Ashlee Rucker in October 2017. Jacksonville, Florida, police and prosecutors knew that better than almost anyone else. What’s more, they had a clear opportunity to take away Absher’s weapon following a domestic battery call six months before Rucker died.

But instead, they did what so many law enforcement agencies around the U.S. do when confronted with an offender illegally possessing a firearm: next to nothing.

Absher’s propensity for violence was evident at a young age. So was his fascination with firearms: By 20, he had a tattoo of a clown gripping a pistol emblazoned on his chest. When his teenage girlfriend broke up with him in February 2006, he threatened to “kill her and throw her in the river so no one could have her,” according to a police report. He demonstrated his rage by decapitating a teddy bear, throwing the head onto her family’s driveway and dumping the body next to her car in the high school parking lot. 

Four days later, as his ex-girlfriend and her family slept, he took a handgun to their house and opened fire. Three bullets pierced the walls of the girl’s bedroom. Absher was convicted of two felony charges and was sentenced to four years in prison and two years of probation. 

As a felon, under both federal and Florida law, Absher was prohibited from having a firearm. But that didn’t seem to deter him, recalled Tiffany Johnson, whose best friend, Rucker, started dating Absher eight years after his conviction.

Ashlee Rucker (left) and sister Lisa Rucker. Both were shot at their home in Jacksonville, Fla., in October 2017. Lisa survived after being in a coma for two days and undergoing multiple surgeries; Ashlee was pronounced dead at the scene. Credit: Courtesy of Lisa Rucker

Rucker was a single mother in her late 20s working as a medical assistant. Absher, then 28, ran a lawn care business and ingratiated himself by taking her young son, Joseph, for a ride on his mower. Within a few months, they were living together and socializing with Rucker’s family and friends. “Anytime they came to the house, he would have his gun and put it on my refrigerator and let it be known that he had it,” Johnson said. It was a macho thing, she added: “He just always acted like he was a man and carried a gun.”

According to her family, Rucker didn’t know the details of Absher’s conviction – at least not at first. “And I don’t think specifically, she cared at that point,” recalled her younger sister, Lisa Rucker. “You know, she saw him at face value, basically.” 

But about a year and a half into the relationship, alarms went off. One Sunday in August 2015, Absher called Lisa Rucker in a panic, claiming her sister had tried to kill herself. “(She’s) going crazy,” Lisa Rucker remembered him saying. “We were arguing and going back and forth, and she stabbed herself in the stomach.” 

Chad Absher. Credit: Jacksonville, Fla., Sheriff’s Office 

As Absher was phoning police, Ashlee Rucker managed to get to her car and drive away. Police found her on the floor in the back of her vehicle and rushed her to the hospital, where surgeons sewed up her abdomen, then leveled with her sister. “It’s almost physically impossible for you to stab yourself through your abdominal wall,” Lisa Rucker recalled the doctor telling her. The staff was worried enough about Ashlee Rucker’s safety to register her under a pseudonym. But because the incident had been reported to police as a suicide attempt, Absher wasn’t arrested, Lisa Rucker said.

In April 2017, the couple got into another fight, this time about one of her relatives who was staying with them. Ashlee Rucker later told police that Absher whipped her with a phone charger cord, and when she fell to the ground in the fetal position, he forced her mouth open to prevent her from screaming. When police pounded on the door, Absher grabbed a rifle. “I’m gonna die for you,” he told her. She barricaded herself in the bedroom and escaped by climbing out the window, where police were waiting to take her to safety. One officer noted Rucker had abrasions to her eye and scratches across her face. She warned them that Absher was still inside and had a weapon.

In their report, police noted that Absher was a felon with a gun, an offense punishable under Florida law by up to 15 years in prison. 

But instead of trying to arrest him on the spot, officers remained outside and tried to reason with him. “We made multiple attempts to get the suspect to leave his residence with negative results,” they wrote in their report. The officers didn’t try to seize the weapon, even though they knew Absher was prohibited from possessing it. After about an hour and a half, police decided to leave the scene “due to the suspect not making any threats with the weapon to harm himself or the victim.”  

Only then did police seek a warrant for Absher’s arrest for misdemeanor battery and felony possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, forwarding the case to the local state attorney’s office. But they didn’t take the obvious step of getting a search warrant for the gun. A month later, prosecutors denied the arrest warrant and declined to charge Absher, citing insufficient evidence – and shifting the blame to Rucker. “The only evidence that the suspect was in possession of a gun is the testimony of V, who is uncooperative,” prosecutors wrote in their disposition statement, referring to Rucker as V for “victim.” 

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It’s one of the most common excuses prosecutors give for dropping domestic violence charges – yet women are often reluctant to cooperate out of fear of antagonizing their abusers. In Ashlee Rucker’s case, Absher had threatened to kill her when she tried to leave, her sister said. If police had obtained a search warrant and seized the gun, they wouldn’t have needed Rucker’s help. But as so often happens with intimate partner abuse, law enforcement put the onus on the victim.

Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams turned down an interview request and refused to answer detailed follow-up questions about how his department handled the case. The local state attorney, Melissa Nelson, also declined to discuss the case and her office’s policies on domestic violence cases more broadly. 

If police and prosecutors didn’t seem to understand the urgency of the situation, Rucker did. She tried to break off the relationship for good, moving in with her sister and their two young sons. She covered up the tattoo she’d gotten of Absher’s name. 

But Absher kept coming around, and sometimes he brought his rifle, friends and family said. One night, he refused to leave, even after Lisa Rucker called 911. She told dispatchers that he didn’t have a gun; she didn’t realize his rifle was hidden behind a cushion. A few minutes after 2 a.m. Oct. 31, 2017, Absher shot both sisters, according to court records. Their sons, 9-year-old Joseph and 4-year-old Colten, cowered in a bedroom nearby. 

“I looked over and I saw my nephew standing over my sister, and he was crying,” Lisa Rucker said in an interview. “And I guess Colten noticed that I was awake, because he came over to me and he said, ‘Mommy, please, don’t die.’ ”

The bullet pierced the back of Lisa Rucker’s head, nicked her carotid artery and shattered the mandible bone on the left side of her face. She was in a coma for two days and underwent multiple surgeries. Ashlee Rucker was pronounced dead at the scene.

Two days later, police found Absher hiding at a friend’s house and recovered a rifle. 

Lisa Rucker remains outraged that law enforcement failed to prosecute Absher before or confiscate his gun.

Lisa Rucker and her son, Colten, visit Ashlee Rucker’s gravesite in 2017. Credit: Courtesy of Lisa Rucker

“My sister would still be here,” she said. “I wouldn’t have to live with the trauma, the scars, the heartache and everything that goes along with it. … My nephew would still have his mother.”

Absher and his lawyer did not respond to requests for comment. He is scheduled to go on trial for first-degree murder and attempted murder in mid-December. He also faces an additional charge, one that comes too late for Ashlee Rucker: possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

Explore the whole series here: When Abusers Keep Their Guns

Freelance journalist Katherine Sypher contributed to this story. It was edited by Narda Zacchino, Nina Martin and Andy Donohue and copy edited by Nikki Frick. Soo Oh created the charts. 

Jennifer Gollan can be reached at Follow her on Twitter: @jennifergollan.

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Jennifer Gollan is an award-winning reporter. Her investigation When Abusers Keep Their Guns, which exposed how perpetrators often kill their intimate partners with guns they possess unlawfully, spurred sweeping provisions in federal law that greatly expanded the power of local and state police and prosecutors to crack down on abusers with illegal firearms. The project won a 2022 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and has been nominated for a 2022 Emmy Award.

Gollan also has reported on topics ranging from oil companies that dodge accountability for workers’ deaths to shoddy tire manufacturing practices that kill motorists. Her series on rampant exploitation and abuse of caregivers in the burgeoning elder care-home industry, Caregivers and Takers, prompted a congressional hearing and a statewide enforcement sweep in California to recover workers’ wages. Another investigation – focused on how Navy shipbuilders received billions in public money even after their workers were killed or injured on the job – led to tightened federal oversight of contractors’ safety violations.

Gollan’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Associated Press, The Guardian US and Politico Magazine, as well as on PBS NewsHour and Al Jazeera English’s “Fault Lines” program. Her honors include a national Emmy Award, a Hillman Prize for web journalism, two Sigma Delta Chi Awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, a National Headliner Award, a Gracie Award and two Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing awards. Gollan is based in the San Francisco Bay Area.