Domestic Violence & Gun Control: An Interview with Paul Helmke
In the aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting and at the end of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, it is vital that we open dialogue concerning the intersection of domestic abuse and gun violence.
I sat down with Paul Helmke, President of the Brady Campaign from 2006-2011, former mayor of Fort Wayne, Indiana, and SPEA professor to discuss federal legislation in regards to domestic abuse and gun violence, how to effectively protect survivors of domestic assault and gun culture as an extension of toxic masculinity.
Why is domestic violence so consistently left out of the gun control narrative?
HELMKE: It doesn’t fit the popular narratives, which is you need to be afraid of the stranger with the gun, the stranger, the other, who is going to attack you, rather than it being someone you know. I think it’s important for folks to realize that the abusive relationship, the person that you know, that you’ve lived with, is more likely to be the shooter than some stranger.
Does federal law do anything to keep guns out of the hands of abusers?
HELMKE: Federal law does try to deal with this issue. Back in 1968, Congress passed one of the few gun control acts that we ever had—the Gun Control Act of 1968, which basically outlined a list of prohibited purchasers: people who had felony records, people who were dangerously mentally ill, people who were dishonorably discharged from the military, people who were drug abusers. That was an important step, but it relied on the individual to say that they were a felon.
This was somewhat corrected with the Brady Bill in the early 90s.
Shortly after the Brady Bill was adopted, Congress, as part of the Violence Against Women Act, did include something called the Lautenberg Amendment. That basically added domestic abusers as a category of prohibited purchasers. So that was one significant step that Congress has taken. Again, there are weaknesses in it, but that was an attempt to try to deal with the violence.
With all of the laws on gun violence that Congress has adopted, there are loopholes. There are weaknesses, which, to me, is always the argument: if the law’s not working well, make the law stronger, don’t abandon the law.
With any of the categories of prohibited purchaser, the only gun sellers that are required to do a background check are federally licensed dealers. If someone buys a gun at a private sale, from a so-called private seller, whether that’s at a gun show or getting together through a classified, that person is not required to do a background check. Because we don’t track how many guns are sold through through non-licensed sellers, there is not complete record of how many guns are sold that way.
The restrictions against domestic abusers getting a gun only works if a background check is completed—background checks are only required for federally licensed dealers, if someone sells a gun through a private sale, there’s no background check. It’s estimated that nearly 40 percent of all guns are sold without a background check.
Everytown for Gun Safety has determined that in 57 percent of mass shootings (61 of 107 incidents), the shooter killed a current or former spouse or intimate partner or other family member. In 18 percent of the mass shootings, the perpetrator had been previously charged with domestic violence. Why is federal legislation not being enacted to prevent abusers from owning/obtaining firearms if we know for a fact that there’s such a strong correlation between mass shooting perpetrators and domestic abusers?
HELMKE: People think that there are laws in the books to help reduce gun violence and really there aren’t very many. There are some laws from the mid-1930s that help deal with machine guns that have been fairly effective, there’s the prohibited purchasers list from 1968—it’s an imperfect list, it got a little bit better with the Lautenberg Amendment when it added domestic abusers, then there’s the Brady Bill that requires a background checks, but that has holes in it. Congress needs to do more.
What we’ve seen after the Columbine shooting, after the Virginia Tech shooting, after the Sandy Hook shooting, when 20 first graders were riddled with ten bullets each, after the Aurora shooting, after the Charleston Church shooting: Congress does zero, does nothing.
The gun rights agenda in Congress is strong, the NRA controls too many people in Congress and they aren’t willing to consider even the simplest, the most common sense, most reasonable, small step solutions.
Congress fails to act and as a result, we continue to see mass shootings, we continue to see violence, we continue to see domestic abusers turn their guns. It needs to be talked about more.
We’ve gotten to a stage in this country with the mass shootings, which are the only times people pay attention, people always say: now is not the time. But these shootings are occurring on a daily basis. A large number of those are domestic violence situations. I debate someone regularly on how these mass shootings only occur in gun-free zones and I say ‘no, most of them occur in people’s homes where you’re allowed to have a gun.’
We don’t want to deal with these issues, and we keep quiet about the domestic violence side of it. It doesn’t fit the NRA narrative, unless they’re trying to sell guns to women, and it doesn’t fit with the Congressional narrative that we’ve come to expect.
Congress is clearly not listening to their constituents when it comes to gun violence. After the Sandy Hook shooting, polls show that something like 95 percent of the American people supported a stronger background check system. 85 percent of gun owners support a stronger background check system, 75 percent of NRA members supported a strong background check support system, and we couldn’t get that through Congress.
In a perfect world, what does comprehensive gun control policy look like—specifically policy that would effectively disarm domestic abusers and protect survivors?
HELMKE: First of all, we need federal legislation. Again, you need it because we don’t have walls between our states, or checkpoints between our states—guns can easily move from a state with weak gun laws, to a state with strong gun laws.
States that do the right thing, that’s not enough. You need strong federal legislation. I think we need- first, a better list of who should be a prohibited purchaser. Clearly any indication of domestic abuse or partner abuse should be in there. Specifically, with domestic violence, it’s my understanding that that Lautenberg Amendment only deals with a spouse or ex-spouse, not necessarily with a live-in boyfriend or acquaintance. We need to broaden that definition because we have less people who are getting married and more people who are in relationships without marriage. Those individuals need to be under the definition if they become domestic abusers as well. Better definitions of who should be able to get a gun.
Second, you need better background check systems. You need to basically require background checks for all sales, even those with private sellers. You need to make sure that the states are getting all of the records in on a timely basis. Strengthen the list of prohibited purchasers, strengthen the background check systems.
Then, we need to look at what kind of weapons you’re making available to people. We had an assault weapon ban from 1994-2004, Congress allowed that to expire. When it sunsetted without a vote, even though President George W. Bush supported renewing it.
When we wrote the national firearms act in the mid-1930s, saying that machine guns should be treated differently than hunting guns and revolvers, that’s basically all there was. Now we’ve got these semi-automatics, maybe we should treat them closer to how we treat machine guns—or maybe we create a new category in between. Clearly any weapon that can fire sixty rounds a minute needs to be regulated, and when you have things like these bump stops that the Las Vegas shooter used that converts them to 900 rounds a minute, clearly we have some problems. These are weapons of war, not intended for anything else.
A crucial part of looking at the weaponry is looking at the magazine, the ammunition clips. Part of the assault weapons ban said that you couldn’t have an ammunition clip that held more than ten bullets. This is significant because often times a killer is stopped when the killer goes to change the magazine. Restricting the number of bullets that can be shot is crucial.
With domestic violence, we look to what states like California have done with domestic abusers. At a certain stage, they actually go to the home to pick up the weapon. Not only do you say, “You know, you’ve got a domestic violence restraining order against you,” the person ignores it, and the prosecutor’s office or police send someone to pick up the weapon.
Last year the NRA came out with an ad targeting women in situations of domestic abuse, saying that owning a gun is what “real empowerment looks like”- do guns actually help women in situations of domestic abuse?
HELMKE: Statistics show that if there’s a gun in the home, it is twenty-one times more likely to be used against the gun owner, or the gun owner’s family, than against a bad guy.
That tells me that having a gun isn’t any guarantee it’s going to work. People that carry guns in public, that gun, the person who carries that gun in public, is four times more likely to get shot than someone who doesn’t carry the gun. I think we overestimate what a gun can do to protect you.
In a domestic abuser situation, in that the abuser is likely larger, quicker, and can take that individual’s gun and use that against them.
Generally, the NRA does the bidding of the gun manufacturers, the people that make money off of guns realize that their market is decreasing—there are less young white guys growing up going hunting with their dads and wanting guns, and they’re trying to expand their markets. And they’ve been looking for years to try to convince women that they need to buy guns.
Does gun culture embolden and encourage a toxic masculinity?
HELMKE: When I was head of the Brady Organization, I had a board member who referred to it as gundamentalism, not fundamentalism, gundamentalism. It’s almost a worship of the gun. You would have thought that the second amendment was on the tablets handed down to Moses, instead of ‘thou shalt not kill.’ For a lot of people, it’s this inanimate object that makes them feel more powerful or makes them feel less ignored, perhaps, in society. And in a time when society is changing, when women are taking more powerful roles, when immigrants are taking more powerful roles, when people of color are taking more powerful roles—this threatens a lot of white men.
The interesting thing with guns is that the number of households with guns is decreasing while we continue to sell more guns. What we’re doing is we’re having a smaller and smaller group of people buying more guns and then they identify with other to buy more guns, too. It helps give them their sense of definition. It does become toxic because it basically ends up saying: I can’t trust the government, I can’t trust my family members, I can’t trust my friends—I have to take care of myself.
It’s usually built around myths that the Revolutionary War was won by these minute men—you know, only 17 percent of them owned guns and over half of those didn’t work. They’ve turned it into this idea that guns are what is going to keep the country free and define liberty for them. And it all ties into this we need guns to fight back against a tyrannical government. I always say, who are you going to shoot at? You’re going to shoot against the soldiers who you make sure are respected every week when people stand for the flag and sing the national anthem and you get mad at players who kneel for that, or you’re going to shoot my son-in-law in the army? Who are you going to shoot?
It translates not only into their anti-government attitudes, but turns into their relationship attitudes.
So if you don’t get what you want from your partner, your spouse, your significant other, then I can enforce that through my power, through my size, through my gun.