Stories of gun violence and threats of gun violence are routine at the WEAVE domestic violence counseling center in Sacramento.
“Outright brandishing, gun held to the head, guns being used to threaten children,” said Julie Bornhoeft, the nonprofit’s chief development and marketing officer. “We hear about batterers that tend to carry a weapon whether they are legally permitted for a concealed carry or not… also threats of ‘if you leave me, if you tell anyone about this, I’ll murder the children, I’ll murder your family.'”
The challenge for victims, and for people trying to help them, is it can be just as dangerous to walk away from these situations as it is to stay. Leaving a violent partner can push an already volatile abuser over the edge, Bornhoeft said. That puts the victim, their family members and also the community at heightened risk. In fact, research by the group Everytown for Gun Safety shows domestic violence was a precursor to more than half of mass shootings. That includes the one at a church in Texas on Sunday.
“If you have someone that is willing to harm a spouse, a partner or their own children, to assume that they would isolate that violence only to their family is really naïve,” Bornhoeft said. “Once that power and control dynamic is disrupted, they escalate, they’re volatile, and that drive to maintain control can end up with what we saw in Texas. It can extend far beyond the immediate family.”
Devin Patrick Kelley, the man who shot 26 people in Sutherland Springs, Texas, had a history of extreme violence against family members and had reportedly been sending threatening texts to his mother-in-law, who attended the church. Meanwhile, Cedric Anderson, who shot his estranged wife – a teacher – and two students at a San Bernandino elementary school in April had previously been arrested on suspicion of spousal abuse. Omar Mateen, who fatally shot 49 people at an Orlando nightclub in 2016, allegedly beat his ex-wife repeatedly while they were married.
While guns are not the only weapons domestic abuser use, their presence increases the risk that violence will turn deadly. According to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, abused women are five times more likely to be killed if their abuser owns a firearm.
California has some of the strictest gun laws in the country aimed at domestic abusers. For example, people convicted of domestic violence or stalking against anyone, regardless of relationship, are banned from possessing firearms and are required to surrender any guns they possess. Law enforcement also has the power to take custody of firearms during a domestic violence incident that involves a physical threat.
Additionally, the state has the only automated system in the country for tracking gun owners prohibited from owning firearms, and an enforcement program to confiscate guns from them.
California “is definitely ahead of the game,” said Allison Anderman, managing attorney at Giffords Law Center. “I’m not saying they couldn’t do more to help prevent domestic abuse or help domestic violence survivors, but in terms of their gun laws, they’re pretty good.”
Nevertheless, perpetrators still regularly manage to purchase or retain guns and use them to threaten partners and families, advocates said.
Jacquie Marroquin, director of programs for the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence, said victims frequently report that authorities fail to remove guns from their abuser, even after a judge has ordered they not be allowed to have a firearm. She said it’s incumbent upon law enforcement to make sure they consistently enforce domestic violence-related gun laws.
Illegal gun sales are another problem, she said. Abusers can still obtain weapons on the black market or from a family member without a background check, and these guns will not be tracked.
“That’s one of the dangers that survivors are often talking about,” said Marroquin. “Most survivors will tell you it is exceptionally easy for people who are harming them to obtain (guns).”
Ultimately, the state needs to not only strengthen enforcement, but address domestic violence in a more comprehensive way, she said.
“Domestic violence organizations in California are woefully underfunded, especially when it comes to prevention, which is the ultimate form of stopping something from happening,” she said. “Starting early to stop that domestic violence before it starts is also key to keeping all of our communities safe.”