State and local prosecutors would have greatly expanded powers to pursue domestic abusers who possess firearms illegally, under a bipartisan proposal newly introduced in the U.S. Senate.
The measures, part of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2022, come after an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found that domestic violence gun homicides surged 58% over the last decade and that many of those victims were killed by abusers who were prohibited from having guns.
Federal law bars felons and some people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from possessing firearms; offenders caught with weapons face up to 10 years in prison. But state and local law enforcement authorities – who handle most domestic violence cases – can’t enforce those federal laws, and federal prosecutors haven’t made them a priority, so even egregious cases frequently fall through the cracks.
Many states also forbid convicted abusers from possessing firearms, but their laws can be substantially weaker than the federal statutes. And because federal law and most state statutes don’t address how to retrieve weapons from people who aren’t legally permitted to have them, gun bans are largely enforced on an honor system that relies on abusers to disarm themselves.
The reauthorization bill passed by the House last year tried to address some of these issues but faced resistance in the Senate. The new bill has 11 Republican co-sponsors, a rare show of bipartisanship on firearms issues, and echoes the House version in key ways.
Domestic violence and gun policy experts credited Reveal’s reporting with forcing senators to confront a burgeoning crisis that has had devastating consequences for families and communities. “After (Reveal’s) investigation, there was no denying it anymore,” said Marissa Edmund, senior policy analyst for gun violence prevention at the Center for American Progress. The project “100% lit a fire for members of Congress.”
Intimate partner homicides are skyrocketing, yet police, prosecutors and judges often trust offenders to disarm themselves.
The Senate bill overcomes the jurisdictional roadblocks by allowing the U.S. Department of Justice to appoint state, local, territorial and tribal prosecutors to serve as special assistant U.S. attorneys with the power to enforce federal firearms laws. This could be particularly important in at least 20 states that either don’t bar people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from possessing guns or have laws that are weaker than the federal bans.
That, in turn, could help reduce reliance on the honor system, said Dave Keck, project director for the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence and Firearms. “This is a very important step. This is a very good start,” he said.
Other new Senate language takes a similar approach regarding the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the main federal agency responsible for enforcing the nation’s gun laws. Even though guns are used to commit two-thirds of intimate partner homicides, the ATF told Reveal that it doesn’t have a single agent focusing 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, admitted in an interview last summer.
The ATF has about the same number of employees as it did a decade ago. The Senate bill would expand the agency’s reach by allowing the attorney general to deputize local and state law enforcement officers to act as ATF agents to investigate abusers who violate federal gun laws.
To determine where those special prosecutors and law enforcement officers should focus, the legislation instructs the Justice Department to identify at least 75 jurisdictions across the country where gun-related domestic violence is soaring and local authorities lack the resources to respond. The Justice Department would also establish contacts in every U.S. attorney’s office and ATF field office to handle requests for assistance.
“It sends a message to local sheriffs and cops that yes, if you think someone has violated federal firearms law, that they can and should report it, and presumably now they’ll have a means of doing that simply,” Keck said. “It’s so important because it solves the whole problem of saying, ‘We can’t prosecute all those cases.’ Now they can.”
The federal government doesn’t track the number of abusers who kill their intimate partners with illegal guns. Reveal identified at least 110 people across the U.S. who were shot to death from 2017 through 2020 by abusers who shouldn’t have had firearms because of their criminal histories. Most of the victims were women, but many were bystanders, police officers and children.
The pandemic has been an especially lethal period for abuse victims, an exclusive analysis of unpublished FBI data by Northeastern University criminologist James Alan 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.
It was similar concerns about the sweeping toll of domestic and sexual violence that led to the passage of the original Violence Against Women Act in 1994. The landmark legislation, written by then-Sen. Joe Biden, was reauthorized three times with widespread support. But efforts to pass the latest version have been stalled since 2019, when the GOP-led Senate and the NRA balked at various provisions embraced by Democrats and gun violence groups. These included language to close the so-called “boyfriend loophole” – a major gap in the law that allows people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence against dating partners to keep their guns. (By contrast, abusers convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence against a current or former spouse lose their gun rights under the federal law.)
Advocates are hopeful that the 2022 update will break through the logjam. Five of the Senate GOP co-sponsors, including Iowa’s Joni Ernst and John Cornyn of Texas, opposed the Democrats’ bill in 2019. Biden has pledged to sign the reauthorization if it comes to his desk.
But the new Senate version still has some important gaps. In a compromise that leaves many domestic violence advocates disappointed, the bill doesn’t address the boyfriend loophole. Neither the Senate nor House bill specifies how convicted felons and abusers must relinquish their firearms or how police, prosecutors and courts should go about removing guns from offenders who are prohibited from having them.
And it’s unclear how any reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act could solve another fundamental problem that Reveal’s reporting exposed: Local law enforcement officers often don’t seize weapons and punish abusers who violate gun bans even when they have the laws and authority to do so.
Still, Sen. Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, urged his congressional colleagues to take action soon.
“The Violence Against Women Act has improved the criminal justice system’s ability to keep victims safe and hold perpetrators accountable,” Brown said in an email to Reveal. “It has been a valuable tool for so many women and their children – and we must reauthorize it to ensure that these services remain intact.”
This story was edited by Nina Martin and copy edited by Nikki Frick.
Jennifer Gollan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @jennifergollan.