Rhode Island this week became the seventh state this year to pass a law restricting access to guns for people convicted of domestic violence offenses. The state will prohibit the possession of guns by people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence crimes and court-issued final protective orders, and it also will require such people to turn in any guns they already own.
“At last, victims of domestic abuse in Rhode Island will not have the constant fear of knowing that the person who abused them still has a gun,” state Rep. Teresa Tanzi (D) said.
Federal law prohibits anyone convicted of a misdemeanor or felony domestic violence charge or who is subject to a domestic violence protective order from possessing a firearm. But gun control advocates argue that federal laws are not strong enough and additional protections must be passed on the state level, in part because state laws are easier for local authorities to enforce.
The biggest issue, they say, is that the federal statute doesn’t provide a mechanism for those convicted of abuse charges to turn in the guns they already own. It is, they argue, essentially on the honor system.
“You’re prohibited from buying firearms, but you can go home and access the firearms you already have,” said Sarah Tofte, research director for Everytown for Gun Safety. The gun control group and its grassroots arm, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, have worked on the legislation in Rhode Island and other states.
Of the seven states that passed laws curtailing the ability of those convicted of domestic violence to obtain firearms, at least three of them -- New Jersey, North Dakota and Rhode Island -- require those who are convicted to turn their guns over to police. Nationwide, 27 states have passed laws curtailing access to guns by people convicted of domestic violence offenses or subject to protective orders, according to Everytown. Of those, 17 states have laws in place requiring them to relinquish their guns.
Michael Siegel, a professor of community health sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health, published a study this week showing that states that require people with restraining orders to relinquish the firearms they already own have a 14 percent lower rate of intimate-partner gun-related homicides than states that don’t.
“It does make a difference,” Siegel said in an interview. “It’s not enough to just have a law that says if you’re in that category you can’t purchase a gun or are not allowed to carry a gun. You have to have some sort of procedure or mechanism to receive those guns once the person becomes prohibited.”
Siegel said his research shows that there are about 1,800 intimate-partner homicides in the United States each year; about half of those homicides involve guns.
Tofte and others say there is another problem with the federal law, an aspect that experts call the “boyfriend loophole.” It says that to have restricted access to firearms, the offense must have been committed by a current or former spouse, parent or guardian of the victim, or someone with whom the offender shares a child.
The law in Rhode Island was opposed by firearms groups and the National Rifle Association. In a Facebook post, the Rhode Island Firearms Owners’ League wrote the law “is not about taking away guns from violent domestic abusers since the current law already does this. However, the bill will take away guns from non-violent misdemeanor domestic violence offenders without a conviction.”
The NRA opposed the Rhode Island law, writing that it would “remove judicial discretion” and would lead to restraining orders in cases where there is no finding of guilt. The NRA also argued that existing federal and state laws are in place to ensure people convicted of abuse don’t access firearms.
“As we have repeatedly stated, domestic violence is an abhorrent crime, but this bill doesn’t protect domestic violence victims,” the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action wrote on its website. “… Anti-gun groups have co-opted domestic violence organizations simply to notch a victory that they can use as momentum for their larger gun ban agenda.”
The NRA takes stances on individual pieces of legislation, not broad trends, and doesn’t oppose all legislation surrounding domestic violence and firearms. The organization has sponsored legislation it said would protect victims of domestic violence by allowing for expedited concealed-carry permits for victims. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) signed one into law and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) vetoed another.
In North Dakota, Gov. Doug Burgum (R) signed a law in March stating that people who have a domestic violence conviction and are prohibited from having firearms must surrender their guns to the sheriff in their home county. If they do not, the law states, they could be arrested and have their firearms confiscated.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) signed a law prohibiting people convicted of domestic violence or subject to a restraining order from possessing firearms; it also requires them to relinquish their guns.
“Survivors of domestic violence will be safer than ever before,” Christie said, according to NJ.com.