More Guns Mean More Domestic Violence and We Need to Start Talking About That

On Monday, February 11, 2013, Thomas F. Matusiewicz walked into the Wilmington, Delaware courthouse holding his child support hearing, took out a gun and shot and killed Christine Belford, his estranged wife, and her female friend. Matusiewicz also died at the scene, though it is still unclear if the wounds were self-inflicted or the result of law enforcement stepping in. What is clear is that Matusiewicz was known to be a dangerous man long before Monday’s incident and this tragedy is just one more example of the strong overlap between gun violence and domestic violence.

As reports proliferate about Matusiewicz’s history and specifically his relationship with Belford, more questions are raised. Matusiewicz kidnapped his three daughters in 2007, taking them to South America for nineteen months, and eventually landing himself in prison for four years. Belford’s home was equipped with high-end security, including surveillance cameras on the outside of her home, indicating that she was living in fear of her ex-husband. Neighbors report that Belford tried to get a restraining order against her ex, but even if she had succeeded, it’s not likely that it would have prevented the attack, which occurred in a courthouse where both parties were expected.

So how did this dangerous man get a gun? That question has yet to be answered.

We need to realize that unfortunately Matusiewicz is not an outlier. According to the Delaware Coalition Against Domestic Violence, everyday, most commonly with guns. In other words: when we talk about gun violence in this country, we are very often speaking about domestic violence, whether we realize it or not. According to the Huffington Post, 64 percent of the women murdered annually are being killed by family members or intimate partners, and in homes with domestic violence issues, a gun’s presence makes a woman eight times more likely to be killed.

Though these murders lack the media attention given to mass shootings like the Newtown tragedy, they claim many, many more lives than any single shooting event. In the eight weeks after Sandy Hook, more than ninety women were shot and killed by partners or family members. These women include a Tucson resident gunned down in a parking lot by a man whom she had a restraining order against, and a Minnesotan shot, killed, and then sawed into pieces by the husband she tried to leave.

Meanwhile, despite these numbers, Republicans are trying to prevent the passage of the Violence Against Women Act (“VAWA”), a 1994 law authored by Vice President Joe Biden that has been reauthorized twice without opposition. VAWA provides important protection and assistance to the victims of domestic violence, including the allocation of funds to investigate and prosecute violent crimes against women. The bill passed easily in the Senate — 78 to 22 — with all of the “no” votes coming from Republicans. Every single female senator giving their support. Republican senator and potential 2016 Presidential candidate Marco Rubio has voiced his vehement opposition to the law saying, “These funding decisions should be left up to the state-based coalitions that understand local needs best.”

But VAWA’s real test will come in the House of Representatives where Republican congressmen are making no secret about their stance against the bill. And the basis of this resistance to what was once a universally supported bipartisan law? A new addition that would allow Native American courts to try non-Native Americans alleged to have committed domestic abuse on tribal lands. Republicans claim the provision is unconstitutional; Democrats say it is crucial.

Senator Tom Udall, (D-NM) has cited some frightening statistics to show how important the provision is: Native American women are two and a half times more likely to be raped. A third will be assaulted, and three out of five will face domestic violence. As the law currently stands, these women have only one option when attacked by a non-Indian — to “plead for justice to already overburdened United States attorneys who are often hundreds of miles away,” according to the New York Times. The so-called “controversial” provision would make those prosecutions significantly easier for victims to pursue.

While we should know soon enough whether Republicans are able to block this important piece of legislation, we can be assured that this effort will pale in comparison to their attempts to block any gun restrictions proposed by the President and their Democratic colleagues. When the time for that fights comes, hopefully women’s groups—as well as anyone who believes in the protection of all Americans—will remind both legislators and voters that more guns translates into more deadly domestic violence encounters, even if the press doesn’t cover them to the same extent as public shootings.

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