WASHINGTON — The Justice Department on Tuesday announced a new push to boost federal gun prosecutions for domestic abusers, highlighting it as part of an effort to address mass shootings. Advocates for domestic violence survivors and gun safety groups say it’s a good step, but won’t make a serious dent unless loopholes are closed that limit whom the feds can take to court.
Under federal law, most people convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence crime are barred from possessing a gun, as are individuals covered by court orders restraining them from stalking or threatening an intimate partner. Any felony conviction, regardless of the crime, also means the offender can’t have a gun. Federal law defines “domestic violence” as covering abuse by a current or former spouse or “intimate partner” — defined as spouses, people who share children, or who have lived together — but not a current or former dating partner, which advocacy groups say is a significant gap.
“We know families in America have changed. About half of these incidents are from dating partners or ex-dating partners,” said Kiersten Stewart, director of public policy and advocacy for Futures Without Violence.
The number of federal gun prosecutions specific to domestic violence is small but slowly on the rise. In 2018, according to Justice Department statistics, there were 193 indictments nationwide charging people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence offenses with unlawfully having a gun. That’s up from 83 cases filed in 2015. The numbers are even smaller for cases involving court-issued protective orders: There were 54 indictments in 2018, up from 27 in 2015.
The Justice Department thinks it can do better. On Tuesday, the department announced that Attorney General Bill Barr had created a task force of nine US attorneys to explore challenges facing federal prosecutors in bringing these cases, and to come up with training models and best practices. A big focus is making sure US attorney’s offices are coordinating with state and local law enforcement to flag cases that can be prosecuted at the federal level, US Attorney Erin Nealy Cox, who is chairing the group, told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview.
The penalties for a federal conviction are often higher than at the state and local level — the maximum sentence is 10 years in prison. And gun cases can be more straightforward for the feds to prosecute than domestic violence cases where police and prosecutors may need cooperation from a victim or other witnesses who are in a vulnerable situation, she said. Nealy Cox launched a similar initiative in her district in northern Texas earlier this year.
“In a firearm prosecution, once [domestic violence offenders] have a felony or misdemeanor conviction, we don’t have to worry about the current situation that led them to be arrested. We don’t have to put the victim on the stand,” Nealy Cox said. “From a federal point of view, it’s a far easier case to prosecute.”
Beyond improving cooperation between federal and state and local law enforcement, Nealy Cox said the working group, which doesn’t have an expiration date, will also look at where differences in federal and state domestic violence laws create problems for federal prosecutors — where a state conviction doesn’t meet the federal criteria, for instance — and ways to make sure state judges are communicating federal consequences to domestic abusers at sentencing.
“They get the admonishment not to have a gun, but what they don’t get is, not only can you be prosecuted, you can be prosecuted by the feds. That takes on a much larger deterrent effect,” she said. “It’s about helping the field with tools to stop the levels of violence that we’re seeing.”
Kim Gandy, president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, said that given the relatively small number of federal prosecutions, she didn’t think there was “any real fear” among domestic abusers right now. Even just raising awareness of what federal law says and the stakes could help deter people with convictions from illegally keeping guns, she said.
“But that said, there are so many loopholes that it still leaves victims very much unprotected. For instance, you have to have a conviction, which is one issue. You have to be a spouse or former spouse, so there’s the boyfriend loophole. Also a stalking conviction doesn’t apply even though it’s a precursor to [domestic violence] and is often prosecuted as stalking instead of domestic violence,” Gandy said.
Gandy and other advocates who spoke with BuzzFeed News pointed to a bill pending in Congress reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act that would add dating partners to the definition of “domestic violence” and add stalking to the list of crimes that make it illegal to possess a gun. The bill passed the House of Representatives in April over opposition from many Republicans; the National Rifle Association is against the measure. The bill is now before the Republican-controlled Senate.
The Justice Department has not taken an official stance on the bill, and a department spokesperson declined to comment.
Gun safety groups — which often have been at odds with the Trump administration — say the Justice Department is right to focus on domestic violence as a way to stem the rise in mass shootings. More than half of mass shootings in the past decade involved domestic or family violence, according to a study released in December by the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety.
Jan Langbein, CEO of Genesis Women’s Shelter & Support in Dallas, pointed to the 2017 mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, as an example of the need to focus on domestic violence. The shooter had a domestic violence conviction on his record that should have barred him from having a gun, but it hadn’t been flagged to a federal database. He killed 26 people and wounded 20 others when he opened fire at a church that his mother-in-law attended, although she wasn’t there at the time.
“Domestic violence doesn’t stay at home. There is a real intersection, a very critical intersection between domestic violence and mass shootings,” Langbein said. “When you look at the federal prosecution of this, this is sinking some serious teeth into a serious problem. This isn’t a local problem, this is a national problem.”
Advocates were generally positive about the Justice Department’s focus on domestic violence, but said that to be effective, the laws need to be broader. Kyleanne Hunter, vice president for programs at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said she hoped the Justice Department would also embrace efforts to prevent domestic abusers from getting guns before it’s “too late.”
“It’s encouraging that the Department of Justice is doing this, but it also shows that, at the same time, we need to be expanding our background checks and expanding the category of prohibited purchasers to ensure domestic abusers don’t get their hands on guns,” Hunter said. “This is an important step by DOJ, but it also highlights why bills need to get through.”
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger as a result of domestic violence, call 911. For anonymous, confidential help, you can call the 24/7 National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or chat with an advocate via the website.