Last October former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords spoke briefly at the University of Southern Maine on a subject she knows so much about. There at the invitation of the Maine Coalition To End Domestic Violence, Giffords told the group of community leaders, “Dangerous people with guns are threats to women. Stalkers with guns. Abusers with guns.” She continued, “We can change our laws. We can win elections.”
In the U.S. more than 1,700 women are murdered in the U.S. every year, 94 percent of them by a man known to them, according to the Brady Campaign and Violence Policy Center. In more than half the cases, a firearm, most often a handgun, is used. Statistics in Maine, which ranks 23rd among states in domestic abuse homicides, echo the national trend. In 2012 and 2013, guns were involved in more than half of the 23 domestic abuse homicides.
Two factors found in cases in Maine and across the nation point to a dramatically increased risk for domestic homicides involving women and children: when a gun is already present in the home and when there is a past history of domestic abuse. These two factors compounded are lethal for families in crisis and something domestic abuse advocates, law enforcement officials, prosecutors, and legislators must address if women and children in our communities are to be afforded protection.
Here’s the problem: In Maine, for example, when a person has a permanent (rather than a temporary) restraining order, a felony domestic abuse conviction, or a stalking conviction, a judge may issue an order that requires him or her to relinquish all firearms. However, the relinquishment order is not enforced. Nothing keeps the person from passing firearms to a friend or family member and then taking them back. Thus, guns, for all intents and purposes, remain in the possession of convicted abusers who are likely to abuse again. Nationally, in a decision in March 2014, the Supreme Court upheld a ruling that those convicted of domestic abuse be prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms. However, the lack of local enforcement coupled with the widespread incidence of plea-bargaining to lesser charges that do not invoke the relinquishment order, the law is ineffective.
As people of faith, those committed to protecting all of God’s children entrusted to our care, we must support the organizations that advocate for protection against domestic violence and improved mental health services. We must be vocal and visible in our support of legislation that addresses the complicated interplay between what is on the books and what is actually enforced. Our legislators, our prosecutors, and our local law enforcement officials need to hear from us.
At the forum last fall, Emma Connor, the director of Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence, said, “You can’t be good on domestic violence issues and bad on gun control.”
She’s right. We can’t.
The Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
Bishop of the Diocese of Maine