In November, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that could have dangerous implications for survivors of domestic violence. The case, U.S. v. Rahimi, challenges a federal law that bans people under final domestic violence protection orders from possessing guns. 

Throughout the hour-and-a-half Q&A from the justices, there were no questions about whether the law had saved lives. No discussion of its effectiveness. And little exploration of what could happen if, should the law be overturned, thousands of people adjudged to be an imminent danger to family members or intimate partners were able to keep their guns.

Instead, in keeping with the Supreme Court’s decision in Bruen — which essentially forbade judges from considering whether a law is warranted under anything other than early American history, “tradition”, and the text of the Second Amendment — the arguments focused mostly on history and theory, not victims. 

Rahimi has been perhaps the single greatest threat to gun restrictions meant to protect victims of domestic firearm violence since those laws were put in place decades ago, despite evidence that measures like this one protect survivors. The justices — who are likely to issue a decision by June — appeared poised to uphold the law, though that’s by no means a certainty. And if they do, it won’t be because the law protects survivors while having a minimal and justified impact on individual rights.

The consequences of overturning the statute would be severe, but the threat to the federal law could bring renewed focus to state laws and where they can fill gaps. At the same time the Supreme Court is considering Rahimi, the country is just beginning to come down from a surge in domestic firearm violence brought on by the pandemic and an accompanying gun-buying spree. A study published in January by a team of researchers and doctors at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine found that despite the nationwide increase, Americans did not suffer that surge equally and are unlikely to benefit from a decline proportionally. In fact, the researchers found that states with more comprehensive gun laws — not just those related to domestic violence — avoided significant increases in deaths and injuries from domestic firearm violence. Meanwhile, states with weaker laws saw a 28.6 percent increase in domestic firearm violence fatalities. “It would appear warranted for weaker gun law states to trial legislation efforts to see if this can curtail DFV,” the authors wrote.

This study alone isn’t conclusive, but it adds to a body of research demonstrating that state gun laws intended to protect victims of domestic violence can work.

“We know that when a domestic abuser has access to a firearm — doesn’t matter who owns the firearm, it doesn’t matter if it’s a legal firearm or an illegal firearm — that substantially increases the rate of intimate partner homicide,” said Rachel Graber, a domestic violence prevention advocate who oversees gun violence and domestic violence prevention at Jewish Women International as vice president of government relations and advocacy.

Federal law has its limitations. For example, people who are subject only to preliminary emergency restraining orders, or those issued before a hearing, are not barred from having guns nationwide. And even when a final order is issued after a hearing, there are still gaps and challenges to actually removing firearms from an abuser: The protection order prohibition doesn’t cover dating relationships, and federal law doesn’t mandate how or when subjects should surrender guns they already have in their possession. State laws, where they exist, fill in these gaps.

A 2017 study published in Annals of Internal Medicine showed that states with relinquishment requirements were associated with firearm-related intimate-partner homicide rates 14 percent lower than in states that don’t require relinquishment. Nineteen states have these requirements, and some, like California, even require the subject to submit proof that they surrendered their firearms. Evaluations have shown that these laws, particularly when combined with active enforcement, can work to remove firearms from dangerous situations.

“For the prohibitors to live up to their intention, which was grounded in the demonstrated link between firearm access and intimate partner lethality, it’s not enough to just prevent other purchases,” Jennifer Becker, the director of the National Center on Gun Violence in Relationships, told me. “We have to remove guns that are already sitting in homes where there’s been an adjudication that domestic violence is being perpetrated.”

Other research has examined gun laws that specifically address domestic violence and found similar divergence between states with strong and weak laws. And one study, looking particularly at victimization of women, found that states with more restrictions — regardless of the type of gun law — had an incidence of intimate partner homicide 56 percent lower than in states with fewer legislative provisions.

But just having the laws in place is not enough, Becker said.

“The communities that are investing in implementation are making the most progress because the laws themselves are very important — we need to have them to do the work — but it’s not enough for them to exist without implementation,” she said. 

Understanding the impact of legislative efforts to reduce domestic firearm violence is important — not just in the courts. Domestic violence accounts for a significant portion of American gun violence, and abusers use guns to exert power and control their victims. Most intimate partner homicides are committed with firearms. And the problem expands beyond the deaths and physical injuries. One study found that 14 percent of women, and 6 percent of men, have been threatened by an intimate partner with a firearm. 

Still, “the numbers don’t tell the individual stories,” Graber said, “the level of harm, the level of fear, the level of PTSD that abusers who have firearms cause.” 

“Even when a person is not killed and is not physically injured,” she said, “that doesn’t mean that they don’t experience a long-term psychological impact, long-term psychological harm.”