Under Federal law, a person “convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic abuse” is banned from owning a gun for life. Yet in Rhode Island, this law is not often prosecuted, leaving weapons in the hands of domestic abusers. Worse, even when this statue is prosecuted by the state, it falls short in several ways.
Under Rhode Island law, domestic abuse includes dating partners as well as married and co-habitating couples. Federal law does not include dating partners. Also, under Federal law, there is no mechanism defined for actually removing guns from the homes of domestic abusers, but there is under Rhode Island law.
Under Rhode Island law § 11-47-5 (b) “…no person convicted of an offense punishable as a felony offense…shall purchase, own, carry, transport or having in his or her possession any firearm, for a period of two years following the conviction.” Often a domestic abuser will plead down their offense from a felony to a misdemeanor, which has the effect of leaving guns in the possession of abusers.
The upshot of this legal maze of federal and state law is that guns too often remain in the hands of domestic abusers, and the statistics on the intersection of guns and domestic abuse are stark. According the the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence, (RICAGV) between 2001 and 2012 more than 6,410 women were murdered in the United States by an intimate partner using a gun and abused women are five times more likely to be killed if their abuser has access to a gun.
According to the Center for American Progress and the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, “of the 67 female homicide victims in Rhode Island from 2003 to 2012, 27 were the result of a domestic violence incident.”
A study from the Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association, “Batterers’ Use of Guns to Threaten Intimate Partners,” domestic abusers use their guns in many ways as a form of threat. Abusers may threaten to shoot their victim or a person or pet the victim cares about. Abusers may clean, hold, load or even fire a gun during an argument with the victim, driving home their threat without the use of words.
Most gun advocates will agree that guns need to be in the hands of responsible gun owners, not criminals. To that end, the RICAGV is backing legislation that will close the maze of legal loopholes surrounding gun ownership and domestic abuse. The changes in RI § 11-47-5(b) being suggested would:
- Reduce the sentence from felony to misdemeanor, thereby forcing domestic abusers to lose the right to their guns,
- Increase the ban on possessing firearms from 2 years to lifetime, since domestic abusers are typically repeat offenders and can easily “wait out” a two year restriction, and
- Include a clause that would allow persons who have expunged their records, thereby demonstrating that they have reformed themselves, to have their right to firearms reinstated.
A form of this legislation passed the Rhode Island Senate last year unanimously, but died in committee in the House. This year it is hoped that the House has the leadership to pass this common sense legislation out of committee and bring it to the floor for a full vote. Like the legislation that seeks to close the loophole allowing guns in schools, this should be an easy win for gun safety advocates in Rhode Island.