In February, Erin Nealy Cox, a Trump-appointed U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas, held a press conference to announce steps her office was taking to reduce deaths from domestic violence.
Standing behind a lectern, Cox introduced a district-wide initiative informally called “Abusers with Guns.” Its mission: To prosecute people who should not have firearms because of prior domestic violence misdemeanors, felonies, or protective orders.
“Not only could the Justice Department theoretically prosecute you for firearm possession, but in the Northern District of Texas, we will prosecute you,” said Cox, in her prepared remarks. “And upon conviction, the penalties will be swift, stiff, and serious.”
Since she was sworn into office in November 2017, Cox has established one of the most aggressive records in the country for prosecuting domestic abusers who unlawfully keep guns. In fiscal year 2018, Cox prosecuted 23 people with the lead charge of unlawful gun possession despite a prior domestic violence misdemeanor conviction, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse database (TRAC), which compiles information on federal prosecutions. That’s the highest of any district in the country. (Cox said the total “sounded high,” but her office was unable to provide a precise figure. TRAC’s figures were confirmed by several other districts, though its national tally was slightly higher than the one provided by the Justice Department.)
Just four years earlier, only 23 people in the entire country were prosecuted under the federal statute banning people convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor from possessing firearms, according to TRAC.
“Domestic violence cases are just a no-brainer because of the violence associated with them,” said Cox. “If I have limited resources and — let’s just say I’m going after felons with a gun — why wouldn’t you prioritize going after domestic violence felons if you know that they’re high risk offenders?”
The Northern District of Texas is just one of several across the country that has announced new efforts to punish abusers who unlawfully keep guns. In the past five months, U.S. attorneys in Ohio, Oklahoma, and Vermont have also said they are using the force of federal law to crack down on these crimes.
According to data provided by the Justice Department, there has been an 80 percent increase in the past two years in the number of people charged under 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(9), the federal law banning those convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor from possessing firearms. In fiscal year 2018, 197 defendants were prosecuted, up from 110 in fiscal year 2016.
“We’ve been saying to anyone who will listen, this is homicide prevention,” said Mike Tobin, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney in the Northern District of Ohio. There, prosecutions of 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(9) have increased from zero in fiscal year 2014 to six in fiscal year 2018, according to TRAC.
It “just doesn’t seem like there’s much downside” to taking on these cases, added Tobin. “If you’re willing to punch your wife in the face and hit her over the head with a beer bottle, you’re probably more likely to pull a firearm and shoot her or shoot the police officers who are responding to the call from the neighbor. And there are countless examples of that.”
A woman is shot to death by a current or former romantic partner every 16 hours, according to FBI and state crime data analyzed by the Associated Press. Domestic violence claims the lives of children, innocent bystanders, and police officers called to help; it sometimes escalates to mass shootings. Abused women are five times more likely to die if their abuser has access to a gun.
Recognizing the dangerous link between guns and domestic abuse, Congress passed a federal law known as the Lautenberg Amendment in 1996 to ban those convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors from possessing firearms.
There is some evidence to suggest that the law has saved lives by preventing dangerous people from having guns; it is also thought to be massively underutilized. In 2015, a former federal prosecutor claimed it was “egregiously ineffective” and noted that “hundreds of thousands” of Americans were potentially in violation of it.
Domestic abuse is typically handled at the state and local level, where laws vary widely. So federal prosecution numbers do not provide a complete picture of how these crimes are handled in the criminal justice system. But for years, experts on the issue have encouraged the feds to do more to punish abusers who unlawfully keep guns.
Now it seems a shift is underway.
As part of the “Abusers with Guns” initiative, Cox designated one federal prosecutor to partner with state and local law enforcement to identify the offenders whose cases should be handled federally.
These efforts are part of a nationwide uptick in federal gun prosecutions that began in 2014 during the Obama administration. It was strengthened by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. One consequence of trying more gun crimes is that federal prosecutors are catching domestic abusers in their net.
Advocates for survivors of domestic violence say they’re glad to see more domestic abusers penalized for unlawful gun possession.
“To the extent that federal prosecutions mean that we are now taking both domestic violence and gun violence against survivors more seriously, I am all for it,” said Natalie Nanasi, a law professor at Southern Methodist University who runs the Judge Elmo B. Hunter Legal Center for Victims of Crimes Against Women. She added that any approach should be informed by the opinions of individual survivors.
One advantage of the feds targeting domestic abusers who unlawfully keep guns, said David Keck, the director of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence and Firearms, is that in some states, “the only way of prosecuting somebody is to prosecute federally.”
As of this writing, 21 states do not have laws that align with the federal gun ban for those convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
“If there isn’t a state law that mirrors that federal law, it can be very confusing — if not impossible — for states’ law enforcement professionals and the state courts to figure out how to implement that federal law,” added Sierra Smucker, an expert on firearms regulations at the RAND Corporation.
A Justice Department spokesman attributed the recent increase in federal prosecutions under this statute across the country to two factors. First, he noted three recent Supreme Court cases (notably Voisine v. U.S in 2016), which clarified the kinds of lower-level cases that can be prosecuted at the federal level. He also cited Project Safe Neighborhoods, an initiative to combat gun violence that was first implemented in 2001 under President George W. Bush and reinvigorated in March 2017 by Sessions.
One component of Project Safe Neighborhoods is designed to encourage U.S. attorneys to partner with state and local law enforcement officials to identify the most violent criminals and determine the cases that should be handled in federal courts, which typically have harsher penalties.
Several representatives for U.S. attorneys’ offices — including those in Northern Ohio, Western Oklahoma, and Vermont — attributed their increased emphasis on domestic violence to Project Safe Neighborhoods and specifically mentioned the increased cooperation.
In Northern Ohio, funding from Project Safe Neighborhoods has paid for additional prosecutors to handle more violent crime cases.
In Vermont, a Project Safe Neighborhoods task force, composed of members from state, local and federal law enforcement, created an education campaign to warn domestic violence offenders of the consequences they faced if caught with illegal firearms.
It is too early to say whether or not these new efforts have reduced intimate partner homicides.
There is some evidence that in its early years, Project Safe Neighborhoods was effective at reducing homicides. Critics of the program have noted that it ignores corrupt gun suppliers, targets black Americans, exacerbates America’s over-incarceration problem, and catches nonviolent offenders in its net.
Several experts interviewed for this article say they support the federal efforts but share concerns about America’s high rates of incarceration. “I am also concerned about over incarceration,” said Nanasi. “However I am more concerned about over incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders, misdemeanants who jaywalk, who can’t pay their bond, for crimes that don’t endanger the safety of the people around them.”
Rather than prosecuting people, Keck said he would prefer for guns to be surrendered by people who shouldn’t have them because they pose a threat to public safety. Ideally this would happen when the offense is first adjudicated — and before the defendant is in violation of federal law.
Still, Keck said he believes that enforcing the federal law will encourage more people to comply with it. “You send a message that the federal government’s going to take it seriously,” he added.
That, said Cox, is one of her goals. She said she hopes that it will encourage family violence judges to say to defendants, “this is not just a theoretical prosecution, this is happening, there’s an initiative. So don’t possess a gun, whatever you do.”