A study recently published in Criminology and Public Policy examined how firearm restrictions are implemented in cases of intimate partner violence (IPV). Although there are already robust laws in place to disarm IPV perpetrators, the authors found key gaps in how these restrictions are put in place. Addressing these implementation gaps could help save lives.

Research already shows that the presence of firearms in IPV situations is associated with increased risk of lethality. An abuser who has access to firearms is five to seven times as likely to kill their partner than an abuser without access to firearms. Firearms can also be used to coerce and control an intimate partner.

Domestic violence protective orders (DVPOs), often referred to as “restraining orders”, are a way for IPV victims to seek protection from their abuser. Judges can include firearm restrictions as part of a DVPO, and this has been shown to reduce fatal intimate partner violence. There may be shortcomings, however, in how and whether DVPO firearm restrictions are fully implemented.

In the state of North Carolina (NC), statute says that that the courts should ask about respondent (i.e., abuser) firearm access during a DVPO case, and inform them of any firearm restrictions that are included with a DVPO. It is left to the discretion of judges, however, whether a DVPO respondent should be prohibited from possessing firearms (or not) for the duration of the order.

There is an opportunity to go further than simply prohibiting firearm possession; judges can also order a respondent to turn over existing firearms in their possession to law enforcement. This firearm surrender injunction is considered appropriate in NC if certain qualifying criteria are met. If a DVPO respondent (i.e., abuser) used or threatened to use a deadly weapon against the plaintiff; threatened to seriously injure or kill the plaintiff or minor children; threatened to commit suicide; or inflicted serious injuries on the plaintiff or the plaintiff’s minor children, then according to statute, the DVPO respondent “must surrender his or her firearms.”

This study explored the extent to which these legislatively mandated firearm restrictions are implemented in NC DVPO cases. The authors looked at 1) the extent that judges ask about defendant firearm access during DVPO hearings, 2) factors associated with the issuance of DVPO firearm restrictions, and 3) communication of these restrictions to the respondent at the end of the DVPO hearing. The study used data from CASE IPV (Courts Applying Solutions to Eliminate Intimate Partner Violence) on observed DVPO hearings (n=406) and corresponding case files in NC from June 2016 to September 2017. The authors used a multi-staged, random sampling approach and produced weighted estimates to generate representative findings for the entire state.

Findings showed that DVPO respondent firearm access was verbally discussed in only 24% of DVPO hearings in the sample.

Of granted DVPOs, prohibited the respondent from possessing firearms. Only 39% of granted DVPOs explicitly ordered the respondent to surrender any their existing firearms to law enforcement for the duration of the DVPO, although many more cases appeared to meet the qualifying criteria for firearm surrender as outlined by NC statute.

In certain cases, judges seemed more or less inclined to issue firearm restrictions. Cases in which the plaintiff and respondent were divorced or separated had lower odds of prohibited possession and lower odds of firearm surrender injunctions compared to cases in which the plaintiff and respondent were married. This is concerning, as former partners who are divorced or separated are more likely to experience intimate partner homicide. Cases in which the respondent had threatened to kill the plaintiff had 1.96 times the odds of including prohibited possession and 1.93 times the odds of a firearm surrender injunction than cases that did not involve a threat to kill. While this finding was promising, there were many other lethality indicators (e.g., physical abuse, suicide threats) which were not significant predictors for either type of DVPO firearm restriction.

In only one third of DVPO cases that included a firearm restriction did the judge make a verbal announcement about the provision during the hearing (30% of cases granted with a prohibited possession injunction; 33% of cases granted with a firearm surrender injunction).

This study highlighted inconsistencies and missed opportunities in NC courts for limiting firearm access among IPV abusers. Despite clear guidelines outlined in statute, there is significant variability in practice for issuing DVPO firearm restrictions in the courtroom. Clear protocols for assessing firearm access, implementing firearm restrictions, and clearly communicating these restrictions to the respondent and plaintiff could help to improve implementation of legislatively mandated firearm restrictions.

According to the lead author, Dr. Kafka, “We already have laws in place that limit firearm access for IPV perpetrators. We know these laws can help save lives, and there is widespread public support for these measures. That’s the good news. We just need to ensure that these measures are put in place clearly, consistently, and thoroughly, which isn’t happening quite yet.” Rather than leaving DVPO firearm restrictions up to judges’ discretion, including firearm restrictions as default provision for DVPOs may be a more effective approach. Court watch programs could also track implementation and provide further accountability in the courtroom moving forwards.

For plaintiffs, study finding suggest that disclosing in court whether the respondent owns a firearm, has recently used their firearm, has threatened to kill the plaintiff, or made threats of suicide, may increase their chances of receiving a DVPO that includes firearm surrender provisions.

Authors of this study include Dr. Julie Kafka, an Injury and Violence Prevention (IVP) Fellow at UNC Injury Prevention Research Center (IPRC), Dr. Beth Moracco, Associate Director of IPRC, and Deanna Williams and Claire Hoffman, both former research assistants at IPRC and Master of Public Health alumni at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health’s Department of Health Behavior.

Read the full article here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/1745-9133.12581