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Ask The Trace

Do Stronger Gun Laws Reduce Domestic Homicide?

A reader asks whether strict gun laws reduce killings by intimate partners. Experts say yes, but some laws are more effective than others.

Every year, more than half the women murdered in the United States die at the hand of a spouse or romantic partner, nearly always a man. And half of those killings are committed with firearms, according to a 2015 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s natural to wonder, as one Trace reader did, whether gun laws might affect rates of domestic homicide. Do states with stricter gun laws have fewer murders committed by intimate partners than states with permissive gun laws?

The short answer is yes. Several studies on the topic have found that state laws mandating the removal of guns from domestic abusers or individuals with histories of violence significantly reduce in the rate of intimate partner homicide. 

Before we get to the research, let’s back up for a second to explain why states would create their own laws about guns and domestic violence. Ever since Congress passed the Lautenberg Amendment to the Gun Control Act in 1997, the federal government has banned people who have been convicted of some crimes of domestic violence or who are subject to restraining orders from purchasing or possessing guns.

The federal prohibition has significant loopholes, however: It doesn’t apply to partners who are dating but not cohabitating, or to people convicted of misdemeanor stalking. And the law can be difficult to enforce, especially when it comes abusers who own guns before they are convicted. The federal government doesn’t require abusers to relinquish their weapon; it relies on the honor system.

The background check system is also a clunky way to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people. A person will be blocked from buying a gun only once he or she has been convicted of a crime or a court has issued a restraining order. In states that don’t allow ex parte restraining orders — those issued by a judge in emergency hearings, without the accused present — the judicial process takes longer to safeguard potential victims.

In a study published last year, Professor Michael Siegel of Boston University examined states that go beyond federal law and require abusers to relinquish their weapons to police. He found that such states had 14 percent lower rates of intimate partner homicide committed with guns than states that lacked a process for relinquishment. The drop was so pronounced that it drove down rates for all domestic murders, including those committed without guns, by 10 percent. According to a 2016 review by the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 25 states had laws that included a relinquishment process.

Another study by April Zeoli of Michigan State and Daniel Webster of Johns Hopkins, to be published in an upcoming issue of The American Journal of Epidemiology, mirrored Siegel’s findings. Zeoli and Webster found that states that add relinquishment requirements to domestic violence restraining orders reduced intimate partner homicide by 12 percent. The scholars found no significant reduction in homicides from restraining orders that didn’t compel abusers to give up their guns.

Zeoli and Webster also looked at laws that prohibit gun possession not only for additional kinds of domestic abusers like dating partners, but for all residents convicted of violent misdemeanors. California, for instance, prohibits people convicted of misdemeanor assault from owning guns. Zeoli and Webster found these very broad prohibitions were associated with a stunning 23 percent reduction in domestic homicides.

Zeoli believes the nature of violent behavior explains why they reached this last dramatic finding. “We know people who commit severe domestic violence aren’t specialists. They’re generalists. Domestic violence isn’t the only crime they have committed,” she explained. With broader laws like California’s, “The abuser who hasn’t been convicted of DV, but was convicted of assault of a stranger or acquaintance is now covered.” This may be partly because DV is notoriously difficult to prosecute.

A map in Siegel’s paper lays out some geographic trends when it comes to laws and rates of domestic murder: Throughout the Southeast, where states have some of the loosest gun laws and police the fewest tools for seizing weapons from abusers, rates of domestic homicide are among the highest in the country. Meanwhile, in the Northeast and on the West Coast, where gun laws are stricter and domestic abusers are forced to give up their weapons, more lives are saved.