Congress steps up fight to get guns out of domestic abusers’ hands


Editor’s note: This story was produced by the non-profit newsroom Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. Get email alerts on its investigations.

State and local prosecutors and law enforcement across the US will have sweeping new powers to crack down on domestic abusers with illegal guns under a bipartisan deal approved by Congress.

The measures, included in a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act – part of a $1.5tn spending bill passed Thursday night – come after an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting that was published in the Guardian and showed that domestic violence gun homicides leaped 58% over the last decade. Many of those victims were killed by abusers whose criminal histories prohibited them from possessing guns, Reveal found.

Joe Biden, who sponsored the first Violence Against Women Act almost 30 years ago, is expected to quickly sign the bill. The package includes domestic programs, military spending and $13.6bn in aid for Ukraine.

Federal law bars felons and some people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from possessing firearms. But state and local law enforcement authorities, who handle most domestic violence cases, can’t enforce those federal laws and federal prosecutors haven’t prioritized them, so even egregious violations of gun bans often go unpunished. In addition, because federal law and most state statutes don’t address how to retrieve weapons from people who aren’t legally permitted to have them, gun bans are largely enforced on an honor system that relies on abusers to disarm themselves.

Advocates and gun policy experts said Reveal’s reporting spurred lawmakers to break a partisan logjam.

“The reporting definitely lit a fire for members of Congress to act on this issue,” said Marissa Edmund, senior policy analyst for gun violence prevention at the Center for American Progress.

The investigation, which chronicled scores of people killed in domestic violence-related gun homicides in recent years, showed lawmakers “that these are lives that are lost and the pain of that loss extends to their families and communities and knowing that it was preventable. This is a huge win for survivors and advocates to close loopholes that allow some domestic abusers to access firearms.”

“We’re closing gaps that exist between state and local and federal law enforcement,” Edmund added. “There will be more coordination on the state and federal level so abusers won’t have access to those firearms. It will save hundreds of lives.”

The Violence Against Women Act has been reauthorized several times since it was first enacted in 1994, but the most recent update had been stalled in Congress since 2019. The new bill includes the highest funding level ever to support programs for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. It also includes broad provisions that address some of the law enforcement failures that Reveal highlighted in its reporting.

One new provision empowers the US Department of Justice to appoint state, local, territorial and tribal prosecutors to serve as special assistant US attorneys to prosecute violations of federal firearms laws. Another aims to expand the reach of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the chief federal agency charged with enforcing the nation’s gun laws, by allowing the attorney general to deputize local and state law enforcement officers to act as ATF agents to investigate abusers who break federal firearms laws.

To determine where those special prosecutors and law enforcement officers should focus, the legislation directs the justice department to identify at least 75 jurisdictions across the country where gun-related domestic violence is soaring and local authorities lack the resources to respond. The justice department will also establish contacts in every US attorney’s office and ATF field office to handle requests for assistance from state and local police about intimate partner violence cases involving suspects believed to have guns illegally.

The updated act also instructs federal authorities to notify local law enforcement when felons and domestic abusers attempt to buy a gun illegally.

The federal government doesn’t track the number of abusers who kill their intimate partners with illegal guns. As part of its investigation, Reveal tracked down at least 110 people across the US who were shot to death from 2017 through 2020 by abusers barred from possessing firearms, providing an unprecedented accounting of such killings. The pandemic has been an especially lethal period for abuse victims. Gun homicides involving intimate partners rose a stunning 25% in 2020 compared with the previous year, to the highest level in almost three decades.