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State laws complicate the federal ban on gun possession for domestic abusers


The Texas man at the center of the case the Supreme Court decided Friday is Zackey Rahimi. He was subject to a court order for domestic violence that he violated repeatedly. He assaulted and threatened his girlfriend, then went on to fire his gun in public five different times. In Rahimi's case, the court upheld a federal law to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers. And for victims and potential victims of domestic abuse, that's a big deal. Member Station WPLN's Paige Pfleger joins us now to talk about that. Hi, Paige.


RASCOE: Let's take a look at the landscape. Advocates who work with domestic violence victims have pushed to keep abusers from having guns for a long time. But getting that type of protection from the criminal justice system has been difficult. Why is that?

PFLEGER: So there are multiple routes that a victim can take when they turn to the justice system for help. There's criminal prosecution, but that can take a really long time. And then there's orders of protection, which are civil matters. The issue at hand here with the Supreme Court case was whether a civil matter, like a protection order, could carry penalties like being required to give up your gun. Some gun rights groups said protection orders are just too easy to get. But Natalie Nanasi, a law professor and domestic violence expert, disagrees.

NATALIE NANASI: There is a myth out there that it is very easy to get a protective order, that judges are just handing out protective orders like candy to trick-or-treaters, and that's absolutely not the case.

PFLEGER: For example, here in Davidson County, where Nashville is, only about a third of the people who seek protection orders end up getting one, and that can be for all sorts of reasons. Victims don't want to face their abusers in court, or a judge can find that a victim isn't credible.

RASCOE: And so then comes this federal ban that keeps, you know, dangerous people from possessing and owning a gun. It has a lot of facts on its side, right?

PFLEGER: Yeah, that's right. So there's a lot of research on this, but the big takeaway is that domestic abusers and guns are a dangerous combination. Studies show victims are five times more likely to be killed in a domestic violence incident when the abuser has access to a gun, and the dangers extend to others. One study showed domestic violence calls are the most dangerous for law enforcement, and researchers found that mass shooters often have a history of domestic violence. That's why the federal ban is the bare minimum, says Julia Weber, an expert on gun dispossession.

JULIA WEBER: I want us to take domestic violence and access to firearms more seriously and do a better job, separating someone who a court has deemed as needing to be prohibited from those firearms as close to the time of prohibition as possible. That's critical.

PFLEGER: Weber says this decision from the Supreme Court is a great time to take stock of the ways that the system, as it stands, can be improved.

RASCOE: What are some of the issues that still aren't addressed in terms of protecting victims of domestic violence, even with this Supreme Court ruling on gun possession?

PFLEGER: There's really a patchwork of laws across the country for how gun dispossession works, which can make things really difficult. Most states have no way to track how many guns someone has. About a dozen states allow someone who's ordered to give up their guns - give them to a third party, like a friend or a relative. And here in my state, Tennessee - it's the only place where a person doesn't even have to say who they gave their guns to. Advocates say that's a really dangerous loophole that relies on the honor system, so it's easy for guns to slip through the cracks, and the consequences can be deadly.

RASCOE: And you've reported on that in depth, right?

PFLEGER: Yeah. In an investigation we published with ProPublica, we found that in Nashville, nearly 40% of the victims shot in domestic violence homicides since 2007 were killed by people who were legally barred from having a gun at the time of the shooting. So advocates say the stakes here are incredibly high.

RASCOE: That's WPLN's Paige Pfleger. Thanks so much, Paige.

PFLEGER: Thanks, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Paige Pfleger
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.