News analysis: Do lax gun laws escalate domestic violence?

Zimmerman saga raises questions about a link between guns and domestic violence against women

White crosses and flowers are shown Tuesday, April 23, 2013, at an apartment complex in Federal Way, Wash. where a shooting involving domestic violence left five people dead.
Ted S. Warren/AP

George Zimmerman, the man acquitted in July in the killing of Trayvon Martin, just can’t seem to stay out of trouble. Yesterday, police were summoned to the house of his soon to be ex-father-in-law after Zimmerman’s estranged wife, Shellie, told a 911 dispatcher that Zimmerman punched her father and threatened both of them with a gun.

Hours later, Shellie recanted her story and neither she nor her father pressed charges, though investigators are still looking at surveillance tapes. Charges against Zimmerman could still be filed, even without victim cooperation.

But there was a story that made far fewer headlines yesterday and yet was perhaps equally important. It was the case of a Louisiana man named Rene O’Quin, killed by a bullet that came through the wall from his neighbor’s bedroom. The bullet was the result of a fight between the neighbor, Pierre Camese, and his girlfriend. After allegedly beating her, Camese feared retaliation from her relatives and so borrowed a gun that he claimed -- like Zimmerman, like so many with firearms -- was for self-protection.

Guns and domestic violence

While the country remains stymied in debates and legislation over gun control, domestic violence and guns continue to be a lethal combination. And deaths like Rene O'Quin's raise the question once again of why guns are so accessible to people who, according to researchers, are fairly predictable when it comes to the escalation of violence.

Nor is O’Quin alone. There was Janice Lesko of Connecticut, shot by her husband on Aug. 23. Or Laurissa Armstrong of North Carolina, shot by her husband on Aug. 29. This list could go on and on.

One report in the journal Trauma, Violence & Abuse found that domestic assaults were as much as 12 times more likely to end in death if a gun was involved. In a 2010 National Institute of Justice journal article, a leading researcher on domestic violence homicide, Jacquelyn Campbell from John Hopkins University, found that guns were used in 88 percent of the homicides sampled.

Additionally, David Adams, author of the book "Why Do They Kill?: Men Who Murder Their Intimate Partners," cited that guns were used in 92 percent of the murder-suicides he studied. When Adams asked perpetrators if they would have used another weapon to kill had a gun been unavailable, most said "no."

Adams also found that domestic violence homicides were higher in states where gun laws were more lax than others. Texas, for example, has among the highest rates of domestic violence homicides. Arizona and New Mexico are also high, and all three states have relatively lax gun laws. He also found that such murders are significantly higher in the U.S. than in other wealthy countries.

The U.S. has some of the most permissive gun laws of any industrialized country. Guns, said the National Institute of Justice report, “… are more efficient than other weapons, can be used impulsively, and can be used to terrorize and threaten.” Whatever one may think of the Zimmerman trial outcome, it’s difficult to argue that the tragic death of Trayvon Martin wasn’t both efficient and impulsive.

A 1994 federal crime bill barred people with restraining orders against them from owning or possessing guns, but the National Rifle Association managed to get a provision tacked onto that bill that excluded those who had temporary restraining orders -- arguably the vast majority. Some states, like Massachusetts and California, passed legislation that requires even those with temporary orders of protection to surrender their firearms.

But enforcement, even in these states, is difficult. Domestic violence calls are among the most lethal and least predictable for police.

One anti-domestic violence advocate told me that in Massachusetts there are areas where police will ask a perpetrator if he or she owns guns, and if the answer is no, the case is closed. She also said she visited a rural area in the Midwest recently where the sheriff bemoaned the lack of enforcement in revoking firearms, but told her that households in his community owned so many guns -- he estimated 30 per household on average -- that he simply couldn’t revoke them in cases of domestic assaults. He had nowhere to store such arsenals.

Violent criminals

What’s equally troubling seems to be the lack of awareness of just how widespread the problem of domestic violence homicide is in this country.

A July New Yorker article found that between 2000 and 2006, the U.S. lost 3,200 soldiers to foreign wars; during that same time period, here on the home front, we had 10,600 domestic violence homicides. In those cases, guns were used the vast majority of the time. This itself is likely an underestimate since homicide statistics are voluntary by jurisdiction and cases like Rene O'Quin, the wrong-place, wrong-time bystander, are not likely to be categorized as a domestic violence homicide.

Yet his death is precisely because of a domestic violence incident. Lots of other deaths are similarly excluded in domestic violence homicide statistics: same-sex partners where the relationship is not known to family and friends, for example. Or the kinds of car accidents where the perpetrator may have driven in a rage into a tree, or off a bridge, and motivations will never likely be known. Or poisonings, which are often difficult to prove as homicides. Many such categories exist, in fact.

But what is one type that is known, that is both predictable and preventable? The type that is both substantiated by research and solvable today? That's easy. Even the NRA believes violent criminals should have their guns taken away. So the real issue might just be how we define "violent criminals" in this country. Perhaps we can start by asking the victims.

Al Jazeera

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