Just a few weeks ago, the mayor of Dallas held a press conference at Genesis Women’s Shelter. His message was loud and clear: “we are not doing enough.”
Mayor Rawlings’ comments were made in response to the Parkland shooting on February 14 in Florida that left 17 people, most of them high school students, dead. He said that he does not want “another mass shooting in our city,” invoking the specter of the horrific shooting on July 7, 2016, where five police officers were ambushed and killed.
By now, the refrain has become familiar: we’ve seen guns used to kill too many people in high schools, at concerts, in churches, in nightclubs, in office buildings, and on army bases. These shootings happen in public places, where normal people are going about their daily lives, until one person decides to inflict unfathomable pain and suffering. And yet, while each of these incidents took place in different parts of the country, by people of all different ages and races, each of these perpetrators’ behavior has one common origin: a documented history of domestic violence. The Orlando nightclub shooter abused his wife. The Las Vegas shooter was known for berating his girlfriend in public. The San Bernadino shooter was accused of abusing multiple women he had dated. And most recently, the Parkland shooter threatened to kill a fellow classmate who was dating the shooter’s ex-girlfriend.
Recognizing this common harbinger of mass shootings makes the mayor’s comments all the more prescient. Giving domestic violence abusers unfettered access to firearms heightens the risk that one of these offenders will carry out the next Parkland, or the next Dallas, or the next Orlando, and that they will use a gun to do it.
This is not new news. A quick Google search for “domestic violence and mass shootings” produces article after article (after article) affirming the link between these mass killings and a history of abuse towards wives, girlfriends, children, or parents. The message is clear: we need to pay attention to people who have a history of family violence because lives depend on it.
The lethal effects of domestic violence and firearms are not limited to mass shootings, however. A woman in an abusive relationship is five times more likely to be killed by her partner if there is a gun in the home. Even without pulling the trigger, guns are also used as tools of intimidation and threat in abusive relationships: 4.5 million women have reported being threatened by an intimate partner with a gun. In an average month, 50 women are killed by being shot by their intimate partners.
Fortunately, there are already laws on the books that recognize this deadly threat between domestic violence, firearms, and mass shootings, but these laws are not being enforced as strongly as they should be. This was what prompted Mayor Rawlings’ pronouncement that we are not doing enough to stop domestic violence offenders from having access to firearms and that “we can do more.” The good news is that Dallas County already has a program in place that is specifically aimed at preventing domestic violence offenders from having access to guns.
Founded in 2015 by Dallas County Judge Roberto Cañas, the Gun Surrender Program created a partnership between Judge Cañas’ court and the Dallas County Sherriff’s Department to ensure that offenders who have been ordered to surrender their firearms, either because of a family violence conviction or an active protective order, actually have a mechanism to do so. While some may claim that this is a procedure that could result in a vengeful spouse making a claim about her husband so that his guns are taken away, not for her safety but as an act of revenge, we note that the Gun Surrender Program does not circumvent due process, nor is it meant to. The Gun Surrender Program applies to people who have been convicted of a crime, are subject to the same bail or bond requirements as any other criminal defendant, or are the subject of an active protective order granted by a judge after a full hearing.
Despite being a vital mechanism for domestic violence survivor safety, in its almost three years of operation, the Gun Surrender Program has fallen well short of its goal, only collecting about 100 guns in that period. A report on the Gun Surrender Program published in the spring of 2017 made a number of recommendations for improving and strengthening the Program. Many stakeholders around Dallas are actively working to make the Gun Surrender Program more effective. We have made important strides in this area, but there is still more progress to be made.
So, what does all of this mean for the future? Educating the public about the link between domestic violence and firearms, plus support from a dedicated crew of stakeholders around Dallas County means that we are continuously working to make sure that current laws are enforced and fewer domestic violence offenders can get their hands on firearms.
Here at Genesis Women’s Shelter & Support, staff attorneys have begun asking any potential legal client about their abuser’s history of domestic violence and whether he currently has access to a firearm. When we are in court, we are making sure we ask our client to testify about any history of abuse with a gun, or whether the abuser possesses or has access to firearms, despite having a family violence conviction, an active protective order, or should not have guns as a condition of bail for pending criminal charges. Where we can, we are coordinating with the district attorney’s office to make sure that information we receive from clients about an offender’s possession or access to guns is passed to the appropriate person, whether it’s the prosecutor in charge of their case, or the criminal judge.
We can also make sure that family court judges are utilizing the Gun Surrender Program as a mechanism to enforce the law and keep the Dallas County community safe. Dallas County has many family court judges who are knowledgeable about the nuances of domestic violence, but we should encourage family court judges to incorporate the Gun Surrender Program so that it becomes second nature for them to ask about firearm possession in every relevant proceeding in front of them.
Domestic violence affects each and every one of us, whether you are in an abusive relationship, have been in one in the past, or know someone who has experienced domestic violence. And as we have seen too many times to count, domestic violence can also threaten the safety of an entire community. Through policies like the Gun Surrender Program, we can all work to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous domestic violence offenders, and together we can keep Dallas and all of our communities safer.
Rachel Elkin is a staff attorney at Genesis Women’s Shelter. She is a co-author of the 2017 report Taking Aim at Family Violence: A Report on the Dallas County Gun Surrender Program. This report was published by the Hunter Legal Center for Victims of Crimes Against Women at the SMU Dedman School of Law.