Domestic violence perpetrators are prohibited under federal law from owning, buying, or possessing a gun. Many states also ban domestic abusers from possessing a gun. However, domestic abusers often keep their guns and purchase more guns even after they are prohibited, because cities do not fully implement and enforce these laws.
Cities can prevent domestic abusers from accessing guns by establishing a gun dispossession strategy with the following three elements:
- Identify domestic violence perpetrators who are prohibited from possessing firearms.
- Provide domestic violence perpetrators with safe and legal ways to surrender firearms.
- Hold domestic violence perpetrators accountable for failing to follow the law if they illegally keep firearms.
Gun surrender laws have been shown to reduce domestic violence homicide rates and save lives.States that require abusers to turn in their firearms saw a 14-16 percent lower intimate partner firearm homicide rate and a 10-12 percent lower intimate partner homicide rate. 1Carolina Díez et al., “State Intimate Partner Violence-Related Firearm Laws and Intimate Partner Homicide Rates in the United States, 1991 to 2015,” Annals of Internal Medicine 167, no. 8 (October 17, 2017): 536-543; April M. Zeoli et al., “Analysis of the Strength of Legal Firearms Restrictions for Perpetrators of Domestic Violence and Their Associations with Intimate Partner Homicide,” American Journal of Epidemiology 187, no. 7 (July 1, 2018): 1449-1455. When domestic violence perpetrators continue to possess and use firearms, survivors of domestic violence are at heightened risk of ongoing harm, including homicide.2Jacquelyn C. Campbell et al., “Risk Factors for Femicide in Abusive Relationships: Results from a Multisite Case Control Study,” American Journal of Public Health 93, no. 7, (July 2003): 1089-1097. Law enforcement officers are also at heightened risk of harm from armed domestic abusers. Ensuring that domestic violence perpetrators turn in their guns when they become prohibited from possessing them reduces domestic violence homicide rates.
You can create a domestic violence gun dispossession strategy without allocating additional staff or funds. Many city agencies are already tasked with protecting the community from domestic violence perpetrators and can ensure that staff prioritize gun dispossession as part of their existing duties. However, the most effective strategies allocate additional time for cross-agency planning, additional funding, and additional staffing, particularly in law enforcement agencies. These resources are discussed in more detail in the ”Strategy in Practice” section below.
Training: Cities can provide or support training for law enforcement officers who serve domestic violence protective orders and for first responders to domestic violence incidents. This training can cover circumstances in which law enforcement should remove weapons from a domestic violence scene under state laws, and how to assess lethality risks in domestic violence situations. Agencies can also work to develop model policies for firearm dispossession, such as ensuring that domestic violence perpetrators are notified about how to surrender firearms and provided with information about locations for firearm surrender. Similarly, cities can work to train judges about the role of guns in domestic violence.
Strategy in Practice
Identify domestic violence perpetrators who are prohibited from possessing firearms: Courts and victim advocacy organizations should proactively collect information about whether domestic abusers possess guns. This can be achieved by adding a question to court forms (such as petitions for domestic violence restraining orders) asking whether the defendant has access to firearms. Victim advocacy organizations can ask their clients about the presence of firearms in domestic violence cases and ensure that this information is included in police reports and in court documents. Law enforcement agencies can train responding officers to seek evidence about firearms in domestic violence cases, which can later be presented to a court. Once a court order has been made, court administrators should provide local law enforcement agencies with copies of all court documents that include information about firearms risk in a domestic violence case and copies of all court orders that ban a domestic abuser from having a gun. Law enforcement agencies should ensure that the presence of firearms is clearly flagged on domestic violence files and that officers responding to a scene or serving court documents have detailed information about guns so that they are equipped to protect both victim and officer safety.
Provide domestic violence perpetrators with information about safe and legal ways to surrender firearms: The first step in providing for safe and legal dispossession of firearms in your city is to ensure that all domestic violence perpetrators are notified of their legal obligations. This means that domestic violence perpetrators must be informed that they can no longer legally possess a firearm and that they must dispossess themselves of any firearms they currently have. This notification should be made in court as soon as a judge makes a court order that means that the perpetrator is now prohibited from possessing firearms. Perpetrators should receive written information explaining the prohibition, and the judge (or a law enforcement officer) should also orally explain the meaning of the prohibition and the consequences of breaking the law by possessing a gun. Finally, domestic violence perpetrators should be told how they can dispossess themselves of a gun. Cities can develop bench cards for judges to use when admonishing perpetrators, to ensure that all perpetrators receive uniform information about the penalties for continuing to possess guns after a conviction or a restraining order.
The most effective strategies also provide domestic violence perpetrators with safe and legal ways to surrender their firearms, such as providing storage at a law enforcement facility, permitting sales to federally licensed firearms dealers, or permitting law enforcement agencies to oversee a sale to a person who has passed a background check and is legally allowed to own a firearm. By creating a “safe surrender” program, law enforcement agencies can track whether domestic violence perpetrators are surrendering firearms and ensure that surrendered property is kept safely and securely.
Hold domestic violence perpetrators accountable for failing to follow the law if they illegally keep firearms: Finally, city agencies can work together to hold domestic abusers accountable if they defy the law by increasing law enforcement monitoring and prosecuting those who illegally keep firearms. District attorneys’ offices can prioritize prosecution of domestic violence perpetrators who breach court orders and/or state law by possessing firearms. They can also share this information with federal prosecutors, who can bring charges for illegal firearm possession under federal law.
Coordination: To develop and coordinate your city’s gun dispossession strategy for domestic abusers, you should convene a task force of the agencies responsible for implementing and enforcing domestic violence laws in your city. Typically, these stakeholders include domestic violence agencies, court administrators, judges, law enforcement officers, representatives from city councils, district attorneys’ offices, victims’ advocacy organizations, parole offices, shelters, and other community groups. Task force members can share information to determine the scope of your city’s domestic abuse and firearm problem, identify gaps in the current approach, and work together to create a cohesive strategy to prevent gun violence in intimate relationships.
Lack of information sharing is a common barrier to implementing an effective strategy. In practice, this means that law enforcement may not be notified when individuals become prohibited from possessing firearms. Cities have overcome this by organizing a monthly or bimonthly meeting of all important stakeholders to facilitate information-sharing protocols.
Lack of awareness about the danger of firearms in the hands of domestic abusers and lack of awareness of the law can prevent agencies from taking action. Cities have overcome this by organizing training sessions for staff at key agencies.
Agencies, Organizations, and Other Necessary Partners
Effective strategies can include the following partners: the district attorney’s office, local law enforcement, judges and court administration, victims’ advocacy organizations, shelters, and other community stakeholders.
Newsroom & Resources
The National Domestic Violence and Firearms Resource Center
The National Domestic Violence and Firearms Resource Center has case studies and helpful resources dedicated to implementing a domestic violence firearms dispossession strategy.
King County, Washington Domestic Violence Firearms Enforcement Unit
Harris County sheriff offers “safe surrender” of firearms in domestic abuse cases