Domestic violence restraining orders and access to guns
Q&A with April Zeoli
Faculty member, Health Management and Policy
University of Michigan researcher April Zeoli addresses the implications of a recent Texas judge's decision to strike down the federal law prohibiting access to firearms for individuals subject to domestic violence protection orders.
Zeoli is one of the nation's leading experts on policy interventions for firearm use in intimate partner violence. She is a faculty member in the Department of Health Management and Policy at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and serves as director of the policy core at the University of Michigan Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention. Her research focuses on legal firearm restrictions for domestic violence perpetrators and their impact on intimate partner homicide and the implementation of those firearm restrictions. She also studies extreme risk protection orders to remove firearms from high-risk individuals and their use and outcomes, as well as the role of civil and criminal justice system responses to intimate partner violence.
How could this West Texas ruling impact those who have filed for domestic violence restraining/protection orders (and their families)?
In West Texas, the federal law that made it illegal for domestic violence perpetrators who are under existing restraining orders to have access to or own firearms has been struck down as unconstitutional. Texas still has a state law prohibiting the purchase and possession of firearms by individuals under restraining orders, but it is unclear whether they will enforce this law given the court's ruling. The West Texas court's ruling ultimately means the intimate partners, and their families, who have sought the assistance of the court to remain safe from their assailants are less protected, and the potential for lethal violence has increased substantially.
As a researcher studying the intersection of firearms and domestic violence, I have found through my work that these restrictions are associated with a reduction in intimate partner homicides (across states that have these laws in place, the reduction was found to be by about 10%). Not only does this alter the safety of the survivors who petition for restraining orders, but those around them as well, including their children and families.
What does this ruling mean for other federal or state laws relating to intimate partner/firearm violence?
Right now this ruling applies only to West Texas. However, other courts may choose to follow this ruling, making these restrictions unconstitutional in more places. Ultimately, this issue may eventually be taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court via the appeals process. If the Supreme Court upholds the ruling, domestic violence restraining order firearm restrictions may be eliminated throughout the country.
This ruling is a very narrow interpretation of the U.S. Supreme Court's previous ruling on Bruen (NYSRPA v. Bruen) from earlier this year. In the Bruen decision, the Supreme Court ruled that to be constitutional, a firearm restriction must be analogous to laws that were in existence when the country was founded or when the 14th Amendment was enacted. This means the West Texas ruling was based on laws in place over 150 years ago, and that the judge in West Texas specifically looked for firearm restrictions relating to the crime of domestic violence before domestic violence was largely even considered a criminal act.
The West Texas judge could have alternatively reviewed and considered laws that restricted constitutional rights for people considered to be dangerous—of which, there are many examples. If the judge had considered those laws to be similar to the domestic violence restraining order firearm restrictions that prohibit dangerous individuals from accessing a firearm, it is possible the federal law would remain constitutional in Texas.
Does current research show that this law, when enacted, works to save lives?
Absolutely. Multiple studies have found that states that enact domestic violence restraining order firearm restrictions experience an associated decrease in intimate partner homicide. There is also data showing that even at a city level, these laws make a significant difference. Based on my research, these laws, though effective, are not the same across the country.
We have found that those including restrictions for dating partners, individuals under ex parte (emergency) orders, and requirements for the prohibited persons to relinquish their firearms have the strongest associations with reductions in intimate partner homicide. We know that when a domestic violence perpetrator has access to a firearm, the risk for homicide increases by 400%—removing firearms from these perpetrators saves lives.
How can this research play a role in avoiding rulings like the one in West Texas and preventing firearm violence overall?
The safety of the public is paramount. The goal of my research is to offer evidence-based solutions to prevent firearm injury and death—a common goal for those who enact these domestic violence restraining order firearm restriction policies. Legislators want to know how to address firearm violence, safeguard their communities, and determine if the laws they have enacted are effective in doing those things.
Researchers in the firearm injury prevention field are able to provide evidence through rigorous scientific research on strategies that can save lives and prevent injury. Similar to other public health issues, such as motor vehicle crashes, preventing firearm violence requires a multifaceted approach and policies like domestic violence restraining order firearm restrictions are one strategy to achieve that goal.
Do you think this decision was in any way tied to the current political climate of the U.S.?
Our job as researchers is to study the data from an unbiased perspective. National opinion polls show these laws (domestic violence restraining order firearm restrictions) have the broadest support of almost any firearm restriction policy in the United States. People across the country agree that domestic violence perpetrators should not have access to a firearm while under domestic violence restraining orders.