Domestic violence claims at least 2,000 lives each year. Seventy percent of the victims are women. More than half of the time, the weapon used to carry out an “intimate partner” homicide — when a person targets a spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend, or someone with whom they previously had a romantic relationship — is a gun.
The link between guns and fatal domestic abuse is so strong, research shows that simply living in a state with a high rate of firearm ownership increases a woman’s risk of being fatally shot in a domestic violence incident.
The domestic violence epidemic is fueled by many factors, but the presence of firearms often increases the lethality of attacks and expands the number of victims. Abusers intent on killing an intimate partner, especially if they use a gun, often take out other people who happen to be on the scene: children, friends, grandparents, total strangers.
While the stats show that guns are used to kill women in 53 percent of intimate partner homicides, they are responsible for 70 percent of these collateral victims. Of police officers slain while responding to domestic disputes, 95 percent of them were killed with firearms. One study found that domestic violence victims are five times more likely to be killed if their abuser has access to a gun.
“One of the myths about domestic violence is that it’s private, that it happens behind closed doors and we should just stay out of it,” says Leslie Morgan Steiner, an abuse survivor and author whose memoir Crazy Love chronicled the story of her violent relationship. “It’s such an enormous community problem.”
Federal law bars convicted domestic abusers from gun ownership, but without matching state laws, local authorities often have no effective way of disarming those found or alleged to have done a partner harm. The majority of Americans support laws to prohibit abusers — and subjects of restraining orders — from gaining access to weapons, but only a handful of states have them in place.
To record how far fatal domestic shootings reach — and how far short current laws fall in decreasing them — The Trace has compiled the statistical guide that follows.
An average of 760 Americans are killed annually with guns by their spouses, ex-spouses or intimate partners, according to an Associated Press analysis of FBI and Florida homicide data from 2006 to 2014. Eighty percent of those victims were women. Or, as Jennifer Mascia broke it down earlier this year for The Trace: An American woman is fatally shot by her partner every 16 hours.
A volatile relationship can quickly end in bloodshed: In 2013, as many as 280 women were fatally shot during an argument with their abuser, according to a story from the Violence Policy Center.
Earlier this month, Megan Short told friends on Facebook that she was finally leaving her abusive husband. The day she planned to move into a new apartment, he fatally shot her, their three children, and the family dog, before killing himself with a .38-caliber handgun. The children were still in their pajamas.
Such incidents are common enough to comprise their own category of mass shootings. An analysis of 2009 to 2015 data by the Huffington Post found that in 57 percent of shootings resulting in at least four people killed with a gun (the site included shootings both in and outside of homes in its criteria), the attacker targeted a family member or a romantic partner.
While there are no government statistics on how many children are killed in domestic violence situations, the Huffington Post found that children under 17 years old made up the largest group of victims in its study.
Domestic violence can also prove to be a precursor for public murder sprees. Before they embarked on their notorious mass shootings, Omar Mateen (Orlando), Robert Lewis Dear (Planned Parenthood), and Adam Lanza (Sandy Hook Elementary School) perpetrated domestic abuse against a family member or a romantic partner. It’s a longstanding phenomenon: Fifty years ago, Charles Whitman killed his mother and stabbed his wife to death hours before his attack at the University of Texas at Austin left 14 people dead.
Researchers Lori Post and Emily M. Meyer analyzed 18 years of domestic violence fatalities from Michigan and focused exclusively on collateral homicides — cases where individuals connected to the primary victim are also killed, like a parent, child, or a new boyfriend, for example. They found 111 such victims, including 27 new dating partners, 17 parents (or stepparents), 10 friends, five siblings, and two members of the extended family. Fifteen victims were the woman’s child (with no biological ties to the man), and 11 were children shared by the woman and the perpetrator.
In some cases, the batterer deliberately killed the kids but spared the woman. “What could hurt the woman more than hurting her?” says Dr. Post, a professor of Emergency Medicine at Yale University Medical School. “There’s nothing worse you can do than killing her children.”
Officer Ashley Guindon’s rookie weekend in the Prince William County Police Department kicked off with a cheerful tweet welcoming her to the force. Hours later, she was dead after responding to a domestic dispute call. The gunman, Army Sergeant Ronald Hamilton, also fatally shot his wife, Crystal, and injured two other police officers who had arrived at the scene.
Welcome Officers Steven Kendall & Ashley Guindon who were sworn in today & begin their shifts this weekend.Be safe! pic.twitter.com/92c2YLjcQx
— Prince William Co PD (@PWCPoliceDept) February 26, 2016
A new report from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund documented what individual police departments have known for years: Domestic violence calls are among the most lethal scenarios for officers. The report examined deaths in the line of duty from 2010 through 2014, and found that domestic dispute calls led to more fatalities (20 in total) than any other kind of call, including burglaries or shots fired.
Brian Mortensen, 32, was installing a fence at an apartment complex in Orlando, Florida, when a fight broke out nearby between Jakell Ward and his pregnant girlfriend. Ward followed her into the parking lot, firing several shots with his .45-caliber Hi-Point pistol. One of those stray bullets struck Mortensen in the chest. Ward offered Mortensen $400 but didn’t call 911. Weeks later, Mortensen died from his injuries, leaving behind a wife and a newborn daughter.
Even if outsiders are sympathetic to domestic violence, they often think it won’t affect them, said Officer Michael LaRiviere, a 27-year veteran of the Salem, Massachusetts Police Department, in an interview with The Trace. “The reality is, you could be buying groceries tomorrow and get shot because some estranged husband comes in to kill his girlfriend, who is the cashier.”
As with other aspects of fatal domestic violence, there are no federal statistics on the bystanders killed during intimate partner disputes. One analysis published in 2014 in the American Journal of Public Health examined seven years of records from 16 states, including Alaska, Utah, and New Jersey. It found that 4,470 people died in 3,350 incidents. Approximately 20 percent of those killed were “corollary victims” — including 194 new partners, 140 friends, 133 children (under the age 11), and 25 strangers. Once again, a gun was the weapon of choice, used to kill 70 percent of the corollary victims.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that the costs of intimate partner violence against women in 1995 were at least $5.8 billion. Adjusted for inflation, that’s approximately $9.1 billion in 2016 dollars. The tally includes direct medical expenses, mental health care expenses, and lost productivity.
As a white paper from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation notes, that figure doesn’t include expenses like costs of shelter programs, foster care, mental health care for children who witness abuse, or other chronic injuries that can linger decades after the abuse has stopped. The CDC found that in one year, domestic violence was the cause of more than 550,000 injuries requiring medical attention and nearly 8 million lost days of paid work.
As horrifying and deadly as domestic violence can be, experts consider it to be somewhat — though not perfectly — predictable. Dr. Jacquelyn Campbell, a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing, has studied domestic violence for 35 years. She says that the best indicator of whether or not a woman will be killed by her partner is prior domestic violence between those two people. Her research found that 70 percent of the women who were killed by their partners had been abused by that same person before their deaths. Among women who have been abused, says Dr. Campbell, the biggest risk factor for homicide is when an abuser has access to a gun. If victims were previously threatened with a gun by their partner, the risk of death jumps even more dramatically, leaving the abused 20 times more likely to die.
Other risk factors include illicit drug use, job loss, living with a child who is not the abuser’s biological child, and a criminal history. The patterns are so consistent that Dr. Campbell has devised a “danger assessment” instrument to help social workers and members of law enforcement identify the women whose lives are particularly at risk in abusive relationships.
When a woman leaves a partner, that can “trigger a sharp escalation in violence,” says Dr. Campbell. Her research found that women are 3.6 times more likely to be killed shortly after leaving their partner compared to other women in physically abusive relationships.
“But that’s not ever to say that women shouldn’t leave,” adds Dr. Campbell. “They are eventually safer after leaving an abusive relationship.”
Many Americans — and 56 percent of female gun owners — believe that owning a gun makes them safer. The available research, by contrast, suggests that when a woman owns a gun, she actually increases the chances that she’ll die.
One landmark study out of California analyzed six years of data from 1991 to 1996 and concluded that women who owned a gun died by firearm homicide at twice the rates of women who did not. (In the same study, the authors found that female gun owners were 15 times as likely to die of firearm suicide as women without guns.)
To prevent intimate partner homicide, “the most effective intervention is getting guns out of the hands of batterers through whatever legal form that takes,” says April Zeoli, a professor at Michigan State University whose 2015 paper analyzed gun violence interventions to identify the most effective practices.
Dr. Campbell’s research has found that domestic violence victims are significantly more likely to end up dead if their abuser has access to a gun. She notes that such killings are often propelled by high emotions and substance abuse, but “when you put a gun in that mix, that’s when things can get the most easily fatal.”
Federal law prohibits domestic abusers from owning firearms, but that statute nonetheless leaves victims vulnerable in multiple ways. As The Trace has reported: “Under federal law, abuse is only considered domestic violence if the victim is currently or formerly married to or living with his or her abuser, or if the parties have a child together,” even though about as many people are murdered by their dating partners as by their spouses.
This gap in protection is known as the “boyfriend loophole,” and in recent years, at least 10 states have passed laws to close it. The Zero Tolerance for Domestic Abusers Act, introduced last year by Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Dingell of Michigan and Republican Congressman Robert Dold of Illinois, would close the boyfriend loophole on the national level, prohibiting anyone from getting a gun if they’ve abused a current or former dating partner or if they’ve been convicted of stalking.
About 65 percent of Americans support banning people from owning a gun if they’ve been issued any kind of restraining order or convicted of stalking, according to a 2014 poll from the Huffington Post and YouGov.org. The survey also found that 66 percent of Americans want to close the boyfriend loophole.
While federal law says that convicted domestic abusers or those under a protective order for domestic abuse can’t own or purchase firearms, it doesn’t specify what happens to the guns, or who seizes them, and leaves the states to figure it out.
Without laws stipulating the removal of guns from alleged abusers, there can be deadly consequences. In November 2014, Leann Schuldies, a 38-year-old Idaho mother of four, applied for a temporary restraining order (TRO) against her longtime boyfriend, who had threatened to kill her. A judge granted her request, scheduling a hearing for a permanent restraining order three weeks later, during which time Schuldies’ partner remained able to own guns. Ten days after the TRO went into effect, Schuldies’ boyfriend fatally shot her and her 17-year-old daughter before killing himself with his shotgun.
In recent years, states have taken steps to get guns out of abusers’ hands, with South Carolina passing a package of measures after a scathing newspaper series exploring its worst-in-the-nation rate for fatal domestic violence. But most states still wait for a restraining order to become permanent to remove guns from abusers, potentially leaving victims exposed during those initial, dangerous days following a separation. As of this writing, only 16 states authorize or require the removal of firearms from subjects of temporary restraining orders. On October 1, Connecticut will become the seventeenth state to enact such a policy.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that 16 states require the removal of firearms from subjects of temporary restraining orders. Only seven require gun relinquishment when such a protective order is issued, and nine authorize it.