In January 2023, in the space of about two weeks, there were five markedly similar mass murders. Each featured gun violence, and in each the victims included at least one child and one woman. In four of the five events, the shooter took his own life. And in every case the killer was a relative, usually the father, of the children he murdered. In the most horrifying of these events, a Utah man shot and killed his seven children, his wife and then himself, after she filed for divorce—and after he removed all the guns from their home.
These family murders are by far the most common type of fatal mass shootings in the U.S., by some counts comprising 41% of all mass shootings since 2006, by others happening on average every three and a half weeks in the last two decades. Perhaps because the gunmen in these crimes are not usually considered to be an immediate threat to the general public, they get less media attention than other multiple-shooting incidents. Until recently federal law prohibited anyone who has a restraining order or a domestic-violence conviction from owning a gun.
That changed in the first week of February, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued a ruling that it was unconstitutional to deprive those under restraining orders of their guns. The ruling overturned the conviction of a man who participated in five shootings in December 2020 and January 2021 while under such an order. The three-judge panel relied on a 2022 Supreme Court ruling, known as Bruen, which said that gun restrictions are only constitutional if they have historical analogues. Even though the Fifth Circuit judges acknowledged that the gun laws were “meant to protect vulnerable people in our society,” they said the Department of Justice “fail[ed] to demonstrate that [the law’s] restriction of the Second Amendment right fits within our Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.”
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Domestic-violence organizations were outraged, especially those in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, which do not have state laws that prohibit domestic-abuse perpetrators from owning weapons. “Restricting adjudicated domestic-violence offenders from having access to a gun just seems so common sense,” says Ruth Glenn, the CEO and president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “To have an entity do what they did was shocking, appalling. For victims and survivors, particularly in those states, the risk has just been escalated.”
In Texas, Kathryn Jacob, the president of the Arlington-based SafeHaven survivors’ advocacy agency, called the ruling “disheartening” and told the Fort Worth Star Telegram that it “makes our mission even more challenging.” The Texas Council on Family Violence noted that the number of women murdered by an intimate partner in Texas had doubled in the last 10 years. But partners do not have to kill anyone for a gun to imperil families. “[Men] don’t necessarily have to fire the gun to intimidate, harass, scare [their partners],” notes Glenn. “Just the presence of a gun is terrifying enough—it can be very debilitating and frightening.” Domestic violence is already estimated to be one of the most underreported crime in the U.S., and advocates suggest that the overturning of restrictions against gun ownership will make women even less likely to speak out and seek help.
It’s not clear that any of the five incidents in January would have been averted by the laws, since police have not yet revealed if any of the men were under domestic-violence orders. Nevertheless the killings had a dismaying air of preventability. Very few of them came completely out of the blue. The killer in Utah had previously been investigated for child abuse. The man who shot his wife and three kids in North Carolina had previously been involuntarily committed to a mental institution. In Tennessee, the husband allegedly killed his wife with blunt trauma first, and then shot his two sons, ages 9 and 11, and himself, several weeks later after police tracked him down. In Cleveland, the man accused of killing his father, sister, brother-in-law, and 16-year-old nephew and critically wounding his 8-year-old niece, had a history of weapons crimes. (He was the one who flagged down cops to tell them what he did, according to police, but has pleaded not guilty to charges including aggravated murder and attempted murder.) In Michigan, the woman who was murdered was reportedly preparing to leave the father of her children because of his “controlling behavior,” when he shot and killed her and their two daughters, 14 and 10, and then himself.
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Most of the killers telegraphed that they posed a risk to those around them, but still got hold of a gun. “We do have an enforcement problem, absolutely,” says Glenn, of the existing laws. “But if we’re spending our time to justify why firearms should be removed from perpetrators of domestic violence, then our energy is being placed there rather than helping communities figure out how to enforce.”
Keeping guns from the hands of domestic abusers is one of the few policies on which gun advocates on both sides of the debate find any kind of consensus. According to the Rand Corporation’s studies, gun-policy experts who favor more liberal laws around firearms and those who want more restrictions both believe that curbs associated with domestic-violence orders would lower deadly shootings in the U.S. (They disagree as to how much.) The National Rifle Association’s social media feed, which is usually quick to trumpet all victories for Second Amendment rights, has remained quiet on the Fifth Circuit’s decision. In Glenn’s experience, legislators on both sides of the aisle support keeping firearms out of the hands of those with restraining orders. “When it comes to domestic violence, firearms, and violence against women, it can become very bipartisan,” says Glenn. “The problem is, as in this instance, the lower court.”
Domestic-violence experts also point to a demonstrable link between perpetrators of domestic violence and later shooting rampages, suggesting that the implications of the loss of restrictions ripple out way beyond families. Many workplace and school shootings, such as the one in a San Bernardino, Calif., school in 2017, stem from domestic disputes. And studies suggest almost 70% of fatal mass shootings are carried out by someone with a history of domestic violence. An Illinois man who killed six co-workers at a warehouse in Aurora in 2019 had two prior restraining orders from an old girlfriend. Before shooting at Rep. Steve Scalise and others at a Congressional baseball game in 2017, the gunman had been arrested for hitting and choking his daughter and shooting at her friend’s boyfriend. And less than two hours after a Kansas man was served with a restraining order by an ex in 2016, he shot 14 co-workers at a lawnmower factory, killing three of them.
The Justice Department has said it “will seek further review of the Fifth Circuit’s contrary decision.”
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