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Confiscate Guns, Save Lives

Laws prohibiting domestic abusers from possessing firearms are ineffective at reducing the rate of domestic-abuse-related homicides. Strong enforcement mechanisms are essential.

If we want to save the lives of women who have angered their abusive exes, prohibiting the spurned spouse from possessing a gun is not enough. They must be forced to relinquish any firearms they own.

That's the key finding of a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. It reports significantly fewer homicides are committed against intimate partners in states that take that second legal step.

"This is one of the first studies to demonstrate that it's not enough to just pass a gun law," Michael Siegel of the Boston University School of Public Health, the study's senior author, said in announcing the results. "You have to build effective enforcement procedures into the law in order for it to have its intended impact."

The research team, led by Carolina Diez, notes that more than 1,800 people in the United States are killed each year by an intimate partner. About 85 percent of victims are female, and approximately half of these homicides are committed using a firearm.

One federal law—the 1994 Violence Against Women Act—is tough and unambiguous. It decrees that anyone who gets slapped with a restraining order due to a history of domestic violence is prohibited from possessing a firearm.

However, it contains "a substantial loophole," the researchers write: It does not explicitly require them to surrender guns already in their possession, meaning law enforcement cannot confiscate their weapons. Certain state laws go further, mandating that people in that position relinquish any firearms they own.

To gauge their effect, the researchers studied state-level homicide rates from 1991 to 2015, taking note of any relevant changes in state laws over that period. They report that, in 2015, only 15 states explicitly required people who were subject to a restraining order involving an intimate partner to relinquish their weapons.

They found that the overall rate of intimate-partner homicide decreased substantially over the quarter-century, but the level of decline varied enormously from state to state. Further analysis found this is at least partially attributable to the strength of state laws.

Specifically, the intimate-partner homicide rate was 9.7 percent lower, on average, for states that legally required relinquishment of weapons. The rate of such homicides involving firearms was a full 14 percent lower.

State laws that did not explicitly require relinquishment of firearms were associated with a 6.6 percent reduction in intimate-partner homicide rates, which was not statistically significant.

"There were 75 fewer intimate-partner homicide deaths in the U.S. among states with firearm relinquishment laws than would have been expected in the absence of these laws," the researchers write. "If all 50 states had such laws in place, there would have been an additional 120 fewer (domestic violence) deaths across the nation in 2015."

The public policy implications could not be clearer.

"The NRA has long argued that we don't need more laws—we just need to enforce the laws that we already have," Siegel said. "This study shows that there may be some truth to that."

"Adding an enforcement provision—required relinquishment of firearms—to an existing law that prohibits gun possession by people subject to restraining orders appears to turn it from a law that has limited impact to one that saves lives."