Like so many recent episodes of gun violence, the rampage in Santa Barbara raised the familiar questions: Could the violence have been prevented? Could we have seen this coming?
National conversation about how misogyny fuels gun violence is new, but the story line is old. It is echoed in the majority of mass shootings that involve domestic violence. Start with a man who feels he is entitled to attention, sex, or loyalty from a woman. He feels victimized and then enraged when he doesn’t get it. Easy access to guns makes that rage deadly.
Discussion about whether better mental health intervention could have prevented the Santa Barbara killings were still fresh when a shooting at Seattle Pacific University prompted the same questions. Last week, Seattleites faced an unprecedented choice between a vigil for victims at SPU and another on the same night, this time asking whether homophobia fueled the murder of two young men.
Experts and pundits differ on how to read warning signs. But the consensus seems to be if we somehow could see the danger in advance, we would act to stop it. Of course dangerous people shouldn’t be allowed to have guns, the story goes, but we can’t tell who is dangerous until it’s too late. If we could, we would intervene.
Right now, all over the country, courts and law enforcement have specific information about thousands of people who pose a serious threat of violence. What’s more, courts have heard evidence and issued orders that make it illegal for these people to have guns. Often, the court has specific information that the dangerous person owns a specific gun, and has threatened to kill someone with it. So what happens to get illegal guns away from these known dangerous people, after all the dots have been connected? Next to nothing.
It is illegal under federal law for an abuser served with a Domestic Violence Protection Order to have a firearm. With few exceptions, the law is simply not enforced. Among the victims of domestic violence murders studied by the Washington State Domestic Violence Fatality Review, a handful had Protection Orders in place because the abuser had threatened murder or suicide with a gun. Courts and law enforcement did nothing to actually get those guns out of dangerous hands. Out of the thousands of victims who petition for Protection Orders in Washington each year, only a tiny minority even ask the court to take away the abuser’s guns. That’s not because the rest aren’t afraid. It’s because they know it’s useless to ask.
Ironically, California lawmakers are looking to Domestic Violence Protection Orders as a model for a new “gun violence restraining order” that would allow courts to temporarily remove guns from people who have been identified as dangerous. But one thing we have learned from efforts to disarm abusers is that these laws don’t enforce themselves. Getting results takes coordination, political will, commitment at every level, and (of course) money.
The good news: it works. One California county hasn’t had a domestic violence murder since they put an aggressive plan in place to take guns out of the equation.
In the wake of a mass shooting, consensus that we need to do something is easy to come by. But the long uphill battle to use the tools we already have in place tells a different story. If we put what we know into practice, then strategies for preventing domestic violence murders can be a model for stopping the violence that shares so many of the same roots. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We just need to get it rolling.