Action Alert

Guns into Ploughshares: Calling a Nation to Consciousness

In the wake of the mass shooting in Orlando, which was preceded by incidents of domestic violence by the perpetrator, will Obama’s executive actions help curb gun violence against women?

Guns into Ploughshares: Calling a Nation to Consciousness
At a vigil for victims of the Orlando shooting in Harrisburg, Pa., June 13, 2016.

Imagine your state’s football stadium. Fill it with people—your neighbors, friends, family and members of your community. Now you have an idea of how many people are shot every year in the United States on average.

More than 100,000 people are shot every year, and about a third of them will die from gun violence. Between 1968 and 2011, more people have died from gun violence than in all the wars this country has fought.

Most recently, 49 people were killed and 53 injured in Orlando, Fla., in a mass shooting that is the deadliest in U.S. history. While they are horrific acts of terror and violence, mass shootings are not the leading causes of gun violence in the United States, however.

According to Futures Without Violence, women and children are more likely to face lethal force in the United States due to the high volume of guns in the home and the prevalence of domestic violence. Futures Without Violence is a U.S.-based nonprofit organization working to end violence against women and children around the world. Indeed, in the Orlando case, the perpetrator had a history of domestic violence. A 2015 study by Everytown for Gun Safety, an organization that studies mass shootings in America, found that more than a quarter of all mass shootings between January 2009 and July 2015 were perpetrated by individuals with prior domestic violence charges.

“The presence of a firearm in a home with domestic violence can transform an argument into homicide in a fraction of a second,” Futures Without Violence reported. “Firearms and domestic violence are a lethal combination— injuring and killing women, children, and bystanders every day in the United States.”

Compared to other high-income countries, the United States represents 32 percent of the female population, yet accounts for 84 percent of all female firearm homicides. Women of color are disproportionately impacted by gun violence: Black women die from gun violence at more than twice the rate for white women.

According to a Violence Policy Center 2015 study, 94 percent of female homicide victims knew the man who killed them—the majority of the perpetrators were their intimate partners. Intimate partner violence is the leading cause of gun deaths for women in the United States.

Another leading cause for gun violence for women is suicide. Suicide rates for women have increased this year, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. More than 60 percent of gun deaths are the result of suicide.

Children also face substantial risks of gun violence, no matter where they live in the United States. More than 18,000 children and teens are shot every year; children in rural areas tend to be victims of accidental shootings and gun suicides, while children in urban areas are more often victims of gun homicides. In comparison to other high-income countries, U.S. children are 11 times more likely to die from firearms.

One solution being pursued by the White House is to limit gun access for perpetrators of violence, as well as limit children’s access to unsecure firearms.

The White House has issued several executive actions this year, which could address the gun violence affecting women and children in the United States.

Executive Actions to Reduce Gun Violence

President Barack Obama released several executive actions in January 2016, which clarified existing laws and reserved funding to enforce them. The executive actions will require more people who sell firearms to receive a license and require them to perform background checks. Both the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will be hiring more examiners and investigators to enforce the existing gun laws and conduct background checks more effectively. The Social Security Administration has been tasked with linking mental health records with criminal background check data. The Obama administration also proposed investing in mental health care, as well as researching smart gun technology to ensure better gun safety.

“If we can set it up so you can't unlock your phone unless you've got the right fingerprint, why can't we do the same thing for our guns? If there's an app that can help us find a missing tablet ... there's no reason we can't do it with a stolen gun,” Obama said in an address. “If a child can't open a bottle of Aspirin, we should make sure that they can't pull a trigger on a gun."

However, the firearms industry trade association National Shooting Sports Foundation says there are already existing ways to secure firearms and that accidents are at an all-time low.

In 2015, children under the age of 3 were able to gain access to unsecure guns and shoot someone at least 59 times. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence estimates that 3,185 children are shot accidentally, of whom 124 die every year on average. According to the organization, about 1.7 million children live in a home with an unlocked, loaded gun. Quoting these statistics, supporters argue that smarter gun technology is needed because existing methods of gun safety aren’t working.

There are also concerns over how well the technology would work in moments where quick action is required. Most of the concern from both the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the National Rifle Association (NRA), however, is over whether or not the government would mandate that all guns must be ‘smart’ guns. According to Politico, the Obama administration has not revealed any plans to issue such a mandate.

The executive actions most notably close a loophole for private firearm sellers. Under federal regulations, people selling firearms are required to be federally licensed and must conduct background checks on their customers. An exemption exists for private individuals selling firearms; the executive actions will target this exemption so that those in the business of dealing in firearms, whether it’s in a store, at a gun show or on the Internet, must be licensed.

Due to a lack of research, it’s not known how many sellers use this loophole to sell firearms. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence claims that 40 percent of gun purchases are not subject to background checks. An unpublished 2015 survey estimated that about 5 million gun owners made a recent purchase without having to undergo a background check.

The executive actions could potentially decrease gun violence in terms of homicides, assaults and other crimes, suicides and accidents. Supporters of this action say closing this loophole will further stop guns from entering criminals’ hands and will curb gun violence in the home.

Reducing Gun Violence Against Women

Research on states with tighter background check regulations suggests that they reduce gun violence against women, according to The Washington Post. Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, studied states who introduced laws prohibiting people with domestic violence restraining orders from owning guns and saw a 19 percent decrease in intimate partner homicides. Universal background checks, according to Webster, also reduce the number of guns that end up in the illegal market—where perpetrators of domestic violence often get their firearms.

In a 2007 study on the repeal of a Missouri permit-to-purchase law, researchers also found that background checks reduced the rate of suicides and other homicide cases. After Missouri repealed its law requiring gun purchasers obtain a permit and undergo a background check first, a 23-percent increase in gun homicides and a 16-percent increase in gun suicides occurred.

“Just as services like eBay and Craigslist allow Americans to offer a broad range of goods for sale online, numerous Internet services facilitate the sale of large numbers of firearms by unlicensed dealers, frequently without conducting any background checks,” said law professors from the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy. “The failure of these high-volume sellers to obtain licenses and conduct background checks creates a ready source of firearms for dangerous criminals and other prohibited persons, and fuels the illegal gun trafficking that arms criminals and undermines efforts to reduce gun violence.”

However, critics of the executive actions argue that this loophole isn’t the main source for perpetrators of gun violence to get their firearms. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), nearly half of its gun trafficking investigations involve straw purchasers.

Straw purchasers are people who state they are the actual buyer and undergo the background check but then give or sell the firearm to another person. This type of transaction is against the law, but hard to prosecute, according to the ATF. The second-most common way to avoid background checks is to buy from a licensed seller who is corrupt and will illegally forego background checks.

The executive actions would not address these issues, according to critics.

“The president has some better options. Gun shows are not major sources of firearms used in crimes, but straw buyers are. We already have strong laws against straw purchases, but they are barely enforced,” the editors of the National Review wrote in an op-ed piece criticizing the order. “President Obama has absolute power over the hiring and firing of U.S. attorneys, and he could, if he were so inclined, simply order them to start prosecuting straw-buyer cases in high-crime locales such as Chicago and Detroit — or dismiss recalcitrant prosecutors and replace them with those more committed to doing their jobs.”

Another issue is that the effectiveness of the background check system is often compromised by a lack of reporting. Federal law does prohibit domestic violence offenders from buying or possessing firearms if they were convicted of a felony, but if states don’t submit records of their prohibited gun purchasers, people slip through the cracks. The executive actions do urge states to submit complete criminal history records and criminal dispositions, information on persons disqualified because of a mental illness, and qualifying crimes of domestic violence. However, change is left up to the state’s discretion, and it’s uncertain if this will make a difference in states’ reporting activity.

What are the Solutions?

There is not a consensus on solutions to fix the problems that the executive actions don’t address. The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church and United Methodist Women’s social policies call for a reduction in available firearms and in access to these guns through better regulation of the importation, manufacturing, sale and possession of guns and ammunition by the general public.

Some groups outside United Methodist Women also call for stronger gun regulations, while others argue that such regulations only stop law-abiding citizens from purchasing firearms.

The NRA, for example, has argued that more guns in the hands of responsible, legal gun owners deters street crime and stops mass shooters.

The NRA has called the executive actions misguided. “If you want to stop violent crime.... take violent criminals off the street,” NRA executive vice president and CEO Wayne LaPierre said. “Prosecute them under the current federal gun laws and make sure they don't get to their next crime scene.”

However, the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which analyzes gun laws and gun deaths by state, argues that stronger laws actually result in fewer crimes.

“Year after year, we’ve seen a powerful correlation: states with stronger laws have fewer gun deaths per capita while states with weaker laws have more gun deaths. And interstate gun trafficking has become a contagion — states with the weakest laws are also the source of the most crime guns,” the center reported. “Simply put, smart gun laws are saving lives.”

There are some pro-Second-Amendment organizations taking a slightly different approach: common-sense gun regulations.

Groups such as Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, Everytown for Gun Safety and Mayors Against Illegal Guns are striving for solutions that respect the Second Amendment but protect citizens from gun violence—solutions to domestic violence, gun violence and gun safety. United Methodist Women leaders, too, are pushing for change in our acceptance of gun violence, particularly gun violence resulting from domestic violence. United Methodist Women at the Navajo United Methodist Center, for example, offers a transitional living shelter for survivors of domestic violence and their children, where they can learn how to lead independent, violence-free lives.

One solution these groups support is the universal background check, which the executive actions take a step toward by closing the private seller loophole. According to Everytown for Gun Safety, states that already have universal background checks for handguns see fewer cases of domestic violence shootings, on-duty police injuries, suicides and gun trafficking. When a firearm becomes involved, women are 12 times more likely to be killed in a domestic violence situation. Therefore, restricting perpetrators’ access to guns is essential to reducing gun violence toward women.

Federal law only prohibits perpetrators from owning guns if they have been charged with a felony. So far, 19 states and the District of Columbia prohibit non-felony offenders from having guns, while 22 states and D.C. also prohibit people who have committed a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence or are under domestic violence restraining orders from having guns. More protection against gun violence would mean not only more states passing these laws, but also having states report these prohibited offenders to the national background check system.

New Debate

The recent mass shooting in Orlando has led to a debate over whether or not extremists and suspected terrorists should be added to the “prohibited to buying and owning firearms” checklist. Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) has also called on Congress to ban military-style firearms, in addition to banning people on the terrorist watchlist from owning them.

Following the trend to block perpetrators of domestic violence from owning guns, Casey proposed blocking perpetrators of hate crimes from owning them as well, in light of the Orlando shooting. The Hate Crimes Prevention Act would limit gun access for people convicted of hate crimes. This bill has existed in the House since February, but could be introduced again in the Senate.

Another solution often offered is improving gun safety and gun owner responsibility. In a 2013 study, two-thirds of the accidental firearm deaths involving children took place in their home or vehicle most often with a legally owned gun. Everytown for Gun Safety, which conducted a study on child gun deaths, calls for solutions such as public education, gun safety technology and stronger laws that would hold gun owners responsible for negligent gun storage when a child is harmed.

The lack of data and research on gun deaths, even those involving children, limits the ability to develop an effective response. Neither the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention nor the National Institutes of Health are allowed to conduct research that could be used to advocate or promote gun control. This federal regulation has had a chilling effect on all firearms-related research, reducing the amount of available data on the subject. The Obama administration’s executive actions would increase the amount of research on gun safety technology, which could result in less child gun deaths if the research leads to securer guns in the home.

All these “common-sense” solutions could help curb gun violence against women and children in the United States. At the moment, both women and children experience more gun violence in this country than in any other high-income nation. No matter the cause, gun violence is very prevalent in their lives.

For women, solutions to gun violence must especially address both domestic violence and gun violence.

“Women are dying every day as a result of domestic violence, and our state and federal laws are insufficient in the face of this crisis,” Violence Policy Center Legislative Director Kristen Rand said. “State and federal policymakers should take immediate action to help protect women from abusers and prevent future tragedies. This should include ensuring that men with a history of domestic abuse do not have access to guns.”

Posted or updated: 6/20/2016 11:00:00 PM

Suggested Pages:

*Action Alerts

*Domestic Violence Awareness

Take Action:

  • Read The United Methodist Church’s positions on gun violence and speaking out for compassion and resisting the context of hate. You can also reference the upcoming 2016 Book of Resolutions new Resolution “Our Call to End Gun Violence,” as well as “Speaking Out for Compassion: Transforming the Context of Hate in the United States ” (Res. 3422).
  • Watch and share the new documentary Under the Gun with your community and your fellow United Methodist Women.
  • Meet your Congressional representatives in your district or contact them through the Congressional switchboard: 202-224-3121. Urge them to support the following bills:
  • Domestic Violence Gun Homicide Prevention Act of 2015 (H.R.3813 & S.2198) establishes a grant program to encourage states to adopt certain policies such as seizing a firearm or ammunition of domestic violence offenders or seizing firearms when responding to domestic violence situations.
  • Gun Violence Intervention Act of 2015 (S.1977) provides family members and close associates of an individual who they fear is a danger to himself, herself or others to seek gun violence prevention orders and gun violence prevention warrants from a court—allowing police to seize or prevent a person from having firearms.
  • Gun Storage and Safety Devices for all Firearms Act (H.R.47) would require all licensed importers, manufacturers or dealers who sell, transfer or deliver any firearm to provide a secure gun storage or safety device with it.
  • Funding for Research by the CDC on Firearms Safety or Gun Violence Prevention Act (H.R.2612 & S.1473) would fund the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct or support research on firearms safety or gun violence prevention.
  • Good Neighbor Gun Dealer Act (H.R.3569) would require the Attorney General to establish a “Good Neighbor” code of conduct for federally licensed firearms dealers, as a way to prevent them from selling a firearm to a straw purchaser, gun trafficker, criminal or other individual prohibited by law from purchasing a firearm.
  • Crackdown on Deadbeat Gun Dealers Act of 2016 (H.R.4356) would ensure greater accountability by licensed firearms dealers through revoking licenses and civil penalties if they don’t conduct background checks or sell to straw purchasers/traffickers.
  • Hate Crimes Prevention Act (H.R.4603) would prevent a person who has been convicted of a hate crime from obtaining a firearm.

Learn More:

Join the United Methodist Women’s Action Network.
Contact the Washington Office of Public Policy at: csadc@unitedmethodistwomen.org 

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