Legal Aid’s Domestic Violence/Family Law Unit represents clients who are low-income, mostly women of color. One of the main struggles facing our clients continues to be gun violence, which disproportionately affects Black women. And yet, as Mikki Kendall points out in Hood Feminism,
We focus anti-gun violence programs on everyone but the girls and women at risk. Too often, we frame them as the ones who bear witness to the consequences, and not the ones who face them. But we know that gun violence touches girls at all points of life. In 2016, the Violence Police Center documented that Black women experience the highest rates of gun homicide out of any group of women, and much of that can be attributed to instances of intimate partner violence. “Compared to a black male, a black female is far more likely to be killed by a spouse, an intimate acquaintance, or a family member that by a stranger.” And unfortunately, this is something that I can speak to personally.
Mikki Kendall, Hood Feminism 21-22 (2020). Kendall then poignantly describes her own experience with separating from an abusive partner. She expresses relief that – despite continued abuse – Illinois laws prevented her partner from accessing a gun:
. . . when that last bout of violence erupted, I knew the clock on my perfect plan had run out. I had a place I could mostly afford with only my name on the lease, and I got on with it. That didn’t mean the violence was over exactly; it just moved out of my house. He still sent me angry, abusive emails and text messages, he stalked and harassed me, and he still threatened violence despite restraining orders and arrests. But the good news, the best news? He didn’t have a gun. He could threaten, he could yell, he could hit me, but what he couldn’t do was lay his hands on was a projectile weapon that would have turned survivable rage into that split second that can’t be taken back. I got lucky, because we were in Illinois, a state that enforces the restriction on gun ownership for anyone with a recent history of domestic violence.”
Mikki Kendall, Hood Feminism 25-26 (2020) (emphasis added).
The same cannot be said in the District of Columbia. In D.C., there are laws restricting gun ownership for perpetrators of domestic violence. However, those laws lack enforcement mechanisms, especially when compared to other states. For example, in the District, a Respondent who is subject to a Civil Protection Order (essentially, a restraining order, often related to domestic violence) or a Temporary Protection Order (a shorter-term Protection Order designed to provide immediate safety to a Petitioner awaiting their hearing date) is ordered to relinquish all firearms in their possession to local law enforcement, and is prohibited from possessing firearms. However, there is no provision in the law that explicitly requires the removal of firearms from the Respondent. Because the law simply relies on the Respondent to voluntarily relinquish their firearm, there remain questions as to whether this law actually takes guns away from abusers and off the streets.
At Legal Aid, we recently assisted a Petitioner who obtained a Temporary Protection Order against a Respondent after a domestic violence incident. The Temporary Protection Order contained language ordering the Respondent to relinquish his gun; it also required that the Respondent vacate the Petitioner’s home. When the police arrived to escort the Respondent from the Petitioner’s home, the Petitioner asked the police to remove a gun that she knew was in Respondent’s backpack. She explained that she was afraid that the Responder would shoot her. The police refused to confiscate the gun and allowed the Respondent to leave the scene with the gun in his backpack.
We also recently represented a Petitioner who obtained a Civil Protection Order against a Respondent after he assaulted and repeatedly threatened to shoot her. The Respondent carried a gun in the glove compartment of his car. After the Civil Protection Order was entered, the Respondent continued harassing the Petitioner by calling and texting her. Although the Petitioner had the right to report the violations of the Civil Protection Order, she was too afraid to do so. The Petitioner never received notice that the Respondent relinquished the gun or that it was taken from him. She was, therefore, understandably afraid that the Respondent would retaliate against her and carry out the deadly threats he made against her in the past.
We have previously discussed gun violence experienced by our clients, including firearm bans in domestic violence cases and the intersection between domestic violence and gun violence.
Legal Aid’s Domestic Violence/Family Law Unit attorneys continue to hear all too often about violent Respondents having access to firearms. It is a sad reality that haunts us in our work and makes us afraid for our clients and for our community.
There are ways to make domestic violence survivors safer. Jurisdictions that require Respondents subject to DV-related protection orders to provide proof of gun relinquishment see a 16% reduction in intimate partner gun homicides. April M. Zeoli, et al., “Analysis of the Strength of Legal Firearms Restrictions for Perpetrators of Domestic Violence and Their Association with Intimate Partner Homicide,” American Journal of Epidemiology 187, no. 11 (2018). We hope, for the sake of our clients and our community, that the District of Columbia will enact explicit provisions requiring the removal of guns (and proof of the same) from those subject to DV-related protective orders.