Dems Tie Gun-Control Effort to Domestic Violence

Dems Tie Gun-Control Effort to Domestic Violence
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For most of her life, Rep. Debbie Dingell has been reluctant to talk about the night before her younger sister started first grade, when their father threatened their mother with a gun. That incident left lasting scars on the family and led Dingell’s younger sister to suffer from years of anxiety and eventually commit suicide. The Michigan congresswoman first discussed her story in a Washington Post op-ed after the Newtown shootings in 2012, and earlier this year she wrote a public letter to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder urging him to veto a bill that would allow some domestic abusers to acquire concealed-weapon permits.

At a House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee hearing last Tuesday, Dingell referenced her experiences again while advocating for greater restrictions on gun ownership.

“All of the things we’re talking about today would not have kept that gun from my father, and we need to figure out how we keep guns out of the hands of those that should not have them,” she said. “And had that not happened, instead of celebrating my sister—who we loved—yesterday, we would have been with her.”

The emotional hearing, titled “Domestic Violence and Guns: An Epidemic for Women and Families,” underscored how Democrats have coalesced around a new strategy to curb gun violence: linking it to issues of violence against women and families.

“This is truly a national epidemic of violence,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who co-chairs the committee. “Yet still we allow thousands of known abusers to own firearms.” DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, cited a 2014 Center for American Progress report showing that 6,410 American women were murdered by an intimate partner using a gun between 2001 and 2012.

That connection was underscored throughout the hearing.

“Those staggering numbers represent real people, faces, and names,” added California Rep. Mike Thompson. “They’re somebody’s daughter, someone’s mother. They’re people who would still be with us today if we had common-sense laws like comprehensive background checks on the books.”

Legislation focused on guns and domestic violence goes back to the mid-1990s. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 contained provisions prohibiting people subject to restraining orders from purchasing or owning guns, and two years later the Lautenberg Amendment to the Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act of 1997 banned gun ownership for those convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors. Nonetheless, loopholes persist.

Yet as Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence attorney Lindsay Nichols points out, debate in the Capitol has often been limited to media coverage of mental illness and mass shootings that fall outside the realm of domestic violence, even though between January 2009 and January 2013 almost three out of every five mass shootings (which the FBI defines as incidents in which four or more people are killed) included the murder of an intimate partner or family member.

In the past, gun control proponents have tended to promote federal legislation after mass shootings or assassinations. Franklin D. Roosevelt advocated for a national tax and registry for firearms in response to Prohibition-era gang violence; his proposal became the National Firearms Act of 1934. The assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. galvanized Congress to pass the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act and the Gun Control Act of 1968, which prohibited felons and the mentally ill from purchasing firearms and increased requirements for dealer licensing. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 led to the background check system used for many gun sales; its chief advocate, James Brady, was shot during the 1981 attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan.

Such shootings have not always led to legislation. In the year after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 children and six adults were killed, some 1,500 gun bills were introduced in various states, but just 109 of them were enacted -- and only 39 of those tightened restrictions. At the federal level, gun legislation since Sandy Hook has been largely unsuccessful. Since 2013, the only legislation passed in both the House and the Senate has been a spending measure to increase funding for school safety and increase funding for the existing background check system.

Other proposals during this period became mired in committees or have fallen before a floor vote could be taken. Some of these include the Protecting Domestic Violence and Stalking Victims Act, introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Lois Capps, which would have closed loopholes that allow stalkers or abusive dating partners to acquire firearms; the Pause for Safety Act, introduced by Capps and California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, which would have prevented anyone served with a temporary restraining order from purchasing firearms; and a measure with several co-sponsors that would have provided federal incentives to states that remove firearms from domestic violence situations.

In 2013, Mike Thompson introduced the Public Safety and Second Amendment Rights Protection Act with Republican Rep. Peter King, which would have expanded the background check system to include all commercial gun sales. The bill had 187 other co-sponsors (almost all Democrats), and Thompson estimates that if the Republican leadership in the House had allowed it to come the floor, it would have passed easily. But the measure was never called for a vote.

“I think it’s safe to say that there hasn’t been a huge push by the leadership on the other side to get this done or it would have been done already,” Thompson told RealClearPolitics. The companion legislation in the Senate, authored by West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey, failed by six votes in April 2013. This year, Thompson and King have reintroduced their bill and have three additional Republican co-sponsors.

Thompson believes that the new political climate regarding domestic violence and guns will help this session’s initiatives achieve success. Linking the two issues is not necessarily a new strategy, he said, but “it’s a more prevalent strategy, for a couple of reasons.” 

First, it has been relatively successful at the state level. In 2014, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Washington, and Wisconsin all created laws that restricted the ability of perpetrators of domestic violence to possess firearms—and South Carolina Gov. Nicki Haley signed her state’s bill into law Thursday. Similar measures are pending in a dozen other states this year. Eight states have expanded background checks to include all gun purchases (federal law currently has loopholes for unlicensed dealers utilizing online sales and gun shows); most recently, Oregon did likewise on May 11. “I think that once it happens in your state, it’s kind of a push for you,” noted Thompson. “You can’t just go to Washington and hide.”

Second, by focusing on domestic abuse, proponents of gun control can draw on a network of activists combating domestic violence to pursue mutual goals. The Steering and Policy Committee hearing included testimony from executives at the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, as well as advocates for survivors of domestic violence from New Jersey and Virginia. Gun control PACs, including former Rep. Gabby Giffords’ Americans for Responsible Solutions and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Independence USA, gave over $28 million for state-level gun control efforts in 2014. That same year, Americans for Responsible Solutions announced the creation of a national network of anti-firearm activists and women’s groups.

Democrats are hoping that these efforts will help the initiatives overcome opposition in the Republican Party and from groups like the NRA. “We’re missing a more bipartisan effort. But we’re going to go from where we are in the communities,” said Capps, who has reintroduced the Protecting Domestic Violence and Stalking Victims Act and the Pause for Safety Act in the House this year.

Opponents of the Democratic initiatives argue that these bills will weaken Second Amendment rights while failing to mitigate domestic violence. Those who commit violence against intimate partners “are determined to cause harm or kill the victim, and they’ll do so regardless of whether or not they have a legally obtained firearm, and they’ll use other weapons of opportunity,” said NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker. “If Bloomberg and anti-gun supporters were really serious about this problem, they’d focus on policies that might actually prevent domestic violence, like better enforcement of restraining orders and increased penalties for those who violate them.”

Despite this continued resistance from gun rights proponents, Americans for Responsible Solutions spokesman Mark Prentice expressed optimism that Congress can reach a bipartisan consensus that gun control is part of the larger national discussion about addressing domestic violence.

Debbie Dingell believes firmly in this connection, but says she has no illusions that regulating firearms alone will solve the larger problem.

“In my family’s situation, I’m not sure that any of the laws on the books would have kept the gun out of his hands because he hadn’t been convicted of anything,” she reiterated to RealClearPolitics in an email. “But he did have serious emotional issues, and a gun in the home at the time when one snaps is the danger point.

“While some situations like mine are difficult to prevent,” she concluded, “we can reduce gun-related domestic violence, and we have a responsibility to protect families when possible.”

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